It's too early for anyone to know whether Buchholz can return to top form as a key member of the Big Three of the Red Sox pitching rotation. Maybe he'll be OK, but, Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald is reporting that he continues to experience soreness from a lower back strain that resulted in his placement on the disabled list way back on June 19.
The signs for Buchholz continue to be bad. Buchholz has a simple back strain that, mysteriously, won't heal. It's been diagnosed as a "muscular" strain, meaning there's nothing wrong with discs in his back or any other parts of his back. But, what's troubling is that no matter what rest and rehab Buchholz gets, he continues to experience soreness.
Buchholz once remarked that it's hard to give constant rest to this muscle because it's one that you use every day doing normal activities. He has followed a routine to get better. Earlier in his rehab stint, he traveled to North Carolina to see a specialist and received a cortisone shot to try to help reduce the strain in his back muscle. In recent weeks, he has tried throwing off flat ground, but has been unable to throw from a pitcher's mound.
"I think if I rush back into it," Buchholz told the Boston Herald in mid-July, "it will be something that will be here for the rest of the season." When asked when he expected to come off the disabled list, Buchholz replied, "I don't think there's really a timeline."
Whatever improvement has taken place, it has come at a snail's pace. On Friday, July 22, Buchholz was scheduled to finally throw a side session in the bullpen, but he felt some soreness just from throwing on flat ground. Now, Buchholz is expected to test his back within a couple of days.
Not a good sign in several ways.
First, the longer he's out, the longer it will take Buchholz to do rehab starts and get back in the rotation. Second, and more importantly, Buchholz's lingering back issues suggest that he'll remain fragile even if he does return. The soreness or potential soreness is likely to impact his pitching motion. It's easy to imagine him re-injuring the back or suffering another injury due to his overcompensating on the mound.
It's hard for a pitcher to deal with a back injury—along with many other ailments. Pitching is hard enough without any physical problems. It may be that Buchholz, who also suffered from lower back stiffness at the end of the 2010 season, has more challenging back issues to overcome in the future.
Can the Red Sox win it all with only Josh Beckett and Jon Lester as their top pitchers, and the mediocre, inconsistent John Lackey potentially filling the No. 3 role?
It's certainly much harder to imagine. It's hard to imagine Lackey not being knocked around in whatever playoff game he might pitch. Lackey, you'll notice, has sometimes had better performances against the inferior teams, as he did versus the Seattle Mariners on July 22.
Having three high-quality starters has distinguished the 2011 Red Sox pitching. It made fans feel more confident about facing the New York Yankees in a series, for example. The Yanks' pitching quality dips significantly after CC Sabathia.
The Red Sox have proven they're a complete team in 2011. Their hitting has been fantastic. Their bullpen has been strong so far, though it may need an addition to replace what contributions the team had hoped would be supplied by Bobby Jenks, who has suffered from injuries all season.
I'd go further and say that if the Red Sox stay healthy—including the return of Buchholz—they have as good a chance to win it all as any other team, except, perhaps, the Philadelphia Phillies.
It's possible the Red Sox could win it all without Buchholz, but it's a much more shaky proposition.