There is a certain buzz around Fenway Park these days when Clay Buchholz takes the mound, the kind of excitement that comes with a 9-0 start and a 1.65 ERA—the lowest by a Red Sox pitcher through 12 starts since uber-ace Pedro Martinez had a 1.44 ERA after a dozen appearances in 2001.
He is not in Pedro's class yet, and may never be, but Buchholz has erased any doubt he is the No. 1 man in the rotation as Jon Lester has slipped in recent weeks. Buchholz's perfect mark and MLB-best ERA, however, are not the only things that may remind fans of when Martinez toed the rubber for Boston.
The other? Uncertainty over when he'll next do so.
Pedro was the Ming vase of the American League from 1998 to 2004—brilliant yet delicate and prone to cracking. After an amazing three months in '01, he suffered a rotator cuff injury in his 14th start on June 26 that put him on the disabled list for all but 13 innings over the rest of the season.
Martinez was still overpowering in the years to come but pitched 200 innings just twice in his final eight seasons (and never more than 217) while dealing with assorted minor injuries. Managers with the Red Sox and later the Mets were extremely cautious, knowing that 25 to 30 starts with Pedro were better than 33 to 37 with anybody else.
Nearly a decade after the future Hall of Famer's Boston swan song with the '04 World Series champs, Martinez remains the standard by which all Red Sox pitchers are judged. Buchholz appears to be the real deal, but he's also dealing with a trapezius (upper-back/neck) injury that has forced him to miss his last two starts.
It's unclear when he'll pitch again—the bullpen session he was scheduled to throw Saturday was canceled due to lingering pain, causing manager John Farrell to scratch him from his next start Tuesday against the Rays.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. After throwing a no-hitter in just his second major league appearance in 2007, Buchholz struggled for two years before breaking out with a 17-7 record and 2.33 ERA in 2010.
Experts penciled the slim right-hander in for 18-20 wins in '11, but a stress fracture in his lumbar spine ended his season in June. Last year, even though he was injury-free, he pitched just 189 innings and had a 4.56 ERA while struggling to regain his form.
Now he's pitching better than ever, having allowed just two home runs and 29 walks in 84.1 innings while striking out 81. Those numbers, along with his ERA and won-loss record, are certainly Pedro-esque, but will Buchholz be able to get past the injuries that have kept him from achieving the dependability required of a true ace?Right now, the jury is still out. If the Red Sox want to be playing deep into October, they need Buchholz not just to pitch well, but to pitch often.
Saul Wisnia lives less than seven miles from Fenway Park and works 300 yards from Yawkey Way. His latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, is available at http://amzn.to/qWjQRS, and his Fenway Reflections can be found at http://saulwisnia.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @saulwizz.