I have already had my rants about players not prepared for the Red Sox season. Now I want to credit some role players, who are always prepared.
Ryan Hannigan: Hannigan hit a home run in the final Exhibition game in 2016, threw out a baserunner and almost threw out another one. He really looks like a plumber playing for Local 1721, but he handles pitchers expertly and he makes the perfect battery-mate for a guy named O’Sullivan. Makes glad the Irish heart from South Boston.
Brock Holt: Is there a better name for a baseball player than “Brock Holt”? Holt is less obscure, but who would have picked him as a starting left fielder at the beginning of Spring Training? He does all the little things: bunts, moves the runner along, takes the walks, hustles in the field from seven different positions. Small wonder he was an All-Star utility infielder last year. Now he’s platooning with Michael Young in the most famous left field in baseball.
Steven Wright: Son of Tim Wakefield. I would love to know what makes knuckle-ballers so resilient. If the knuckler forgets to dip out of the hitting zone, the knuckle-baller philosophically watches it arc into space and land in the parking lot, then sighs, and turns to the next batter, who flails helplessly at the next pitch. Live by the butterfly, die by the butterfly. The best part of Wakefield and Wright is the total lack of ego, which says, start me, close me, give me the mop, send me for coffee, I’m just here to do my job. My job is to release pitches from my finger tips and hope for the best.
Ruben Amaro: Jaws dropped when he left an administrative job in the front office to be a first-base coach for the Red Sox. This is like the school superintendent deciding to return to the classroom. I wish more would follow Amaro’s example. He loves baseball more than power, and he wants to work where he can have the most impact. He may be a throwback from the halcyon days of baseball, when managers played and executives left them alone. I like to think he is true to baseball’s eternal spirit.
Opening Day Fans: We start every year thinking our team will make the playoffs and who knows what can happen from there? Is there any other game with the potential for dreams like that? There are five teams in every pro sport who plan at the beginning of the year to sell playoff seats and always do. There are a dozen more who are chronic re-builders. Not so in baseball. The Chicago Cubs and the Kansas City Royals are favored to go to the World Series. If anyone had predicted that five years ago we would have been glad to take their money. Baseball is the land of dreams.
Dream on, fans, we are all headed for the playoffs.
The designation of Chris Tillman as Opening Day starter for the Baltimore Orioles shows the Red Sox what they’re up against. This guy has the Red Sox’ number. He’s good for seven shutout innings anytime he faces the Boston line-up.
The answer is Clay Buchholz. Buchholz will match zeroes with anyone, even the fortified Orioles in Camden Yards. His recent work in Spring Training shows that he is the best prepared pitcher in the rotation coming out of the gate. He has already built up to four innings and should be good for five shutout innings on Day One.
After the fifth inning, the Sox will need to rely on a stalwart bullpen to keep the Orioles in check until someone squeezes a run home. Prediction: Grady Sizemore will score the winning run.
Jon Lester dominated for four innings in his last start. The problem was he pitched five innings. He was nicked for a run in the first. Lester always has problems in the first two innings, and that is where the Orioles can hurt him on Opening Day. The one or two runs they can plate quickly could be the difference in a low-scoring game.
So Buchholz. We don’t know how many innings he’s good for in 2014, but let’s give him the first five or six.
With his arm getting stronger and his range of pitches broadening, Clay Buchholz is a candidate for starting on Opening Day. No one in the Red Sox pitching rotation has a broader pitching selection, and no one competes for six innings like Buchholz.
The key question is how will the Red Sox match up against the number one starting pitchers in the American League East? Now that the Yankees have Masahiro Tanaka and the Rays have their usual intimidating staff led by David Price, and the Orioles lead off with Chris Tillman, the Red Sox can not count on too many runs when they face the number one. Jon Lester is good for the long haul, but he is not the shut-down pitcher the Sox need early in the season. Lester is a clutch pitcher who gets better as the season develops, but he is not at his best in April.
In April and May of 2013, Buchholz was the most dominant pitcher in baseball. He mowed down hitters up and down the line-up with his combination of fastball, curve, and cut fastball. This year he has added a change-up. By Opening Day he will be the shut-down pitcher the Red Sox need against the best of the East and the equally dominating Central (Max Scherzer; Justin Verlander) and West (Darvish).
Indisputably Buchholz is fragile and needs a little pampering. Maybe he only pitches five or six innings in the early going. Maybe seven innings is the most he should pitch. But the Red Sox claim to have a strong bullpen, which can pick up whenever he reaches his pitch limit. That’s why they spent most of their money on relief pitchers like Mujica, Badenhof, and Cordero. Combined with Uhehara, Breslow, Tazawa, and Miller, they should be able to fill some of those innings.
With all due respect to Jon Lester, the Opening Day pitcher for the Red Sox should be Clay Buchholz. He can match zeroes with the best of them.