No postseason for Buchholz
Red Sox rookie hurler shut down due to shoulder fatigue
BOSTON -- As it turns out, top pitching prospect Clay Buchholz will not be a secret weapon for the club come October. Citing some weakness and fatigue that developed in Buchholz's right shoulder during September, the Red Sox announced on Friday that the right-hander will not pitch again in 2007.
Highly regarded by the organization before the season even started, Buchholz earned himself national fame by pitching a no-hitter against the Orioles on Sept. 1.
"Obviously, this was not our first choice or even our second choice," said general manager Theo Epstein. "This was pretty much our last choice, our last option. Unfortunately, this was something that, after discussions with the medical staff, is something that we have to do."
Given Buchholz's competitive nature, it was not surprising that he wanted to keep pitching, despite knowing that the organization had his best interests at heart.
"They're thinking about the long-term in the whole deal," said Buchholz. "It just feels like all the hard work and the year I seemed to put together this year ... Just to go home [before the postseason], I'm sort of bitter about it. But it just makes me want to work harder and get back here next year."
Buchholz, 23, reacted to the news the way the Red Sox expected he would.
"I think with all young players and pitchers, they think they can go out and do it, and he quite possibly could," said manager Terry Francona. "But again, I think it would be very disrespectful to try to get some innings out of somebody [when it] may not be in his best interest."
The Red Sox were keeping their options open for ways Buchholz could help during the postseason, be it as a starter or a reliever. But it became more apparent with each passing week that it would not be a wise move with respect to Buchholz's future.
Boston sees Buchholz as a big part of its future and couldn't, in good conscience, pitch him when they had medical analysis that proved it to be the wrong move.
"Clay has been suffering from a fatigued and weak shoulder on and off here this month," said Epstein. "It's now to a point where he can't pitch safely in October. We examined him again [on Thursday], and the only option at that point was about 10 days to two weeks of no-throw plus a two-week throwing progression, which maybe would have given him an opportunity to pitch a couple of innings in the World Series."
But that was a big maybe.
"Given that was a pretty limited reward, it didn't seem worth the risk of keeping him hot for another month," Epstein said. "He's going to shut it down for the year and start the rest of the offseason. He needs to have a great winter of strengthening and conditioning and come back ready to throw a lot of innings next year."
As much talk as there was about Buchholz being on an innings limit this season, Epstein made it clear that shutting him down for October was hardly in the plans before the shoulder fatigue began to develop.
"We were discussing different roles for him [regarding the postseason]," said Epstein. "I think we were open to starting him or using him out of the bullpen depending on how matchups shaped up and how the rest of the team looked and how healthy we were otherwise. We were certainly open to starting him."
But the Red Sox never got that far in their planning.
The first time Buchholz pitched after the no-hitter was on Sept. 6 in Baltimore, where he threw three shutout innings out of the bullpen to earn the win. But Buchholz first experienced some shoulder fatigue after that outing, and didn't pitch again until Sept. 19, when he made an abbreviated start (4 2/3 innings, 68 pitches) in Toronto. Four days after that start against the Blue Jays, Buchholz looked noticeably flat during a side session.
"It wasn't like I couldn't throw at all. It was like I was a little weak," said Buchholz. "And they ran a couple of tests on it, and it showed that it wasn't as strong as it was a month ago, a month and a half, and two months ago. That was about it. The ironic part of it is, I feel really good today, for some reason. And then I go in there and they tell me I'm going to go home in a couple of days."
In all, Buchholz pitched 148 innings this season. His previous high was the 119 he pitched a year ago.
"It's important to step back and realize that this kid just turned 23, this is the first time he's ever pitched this long," Epstein said. "There's a reason why he's fatigued and weak right now. This is not totally unexpected. That's kind of what the innings limits were all about, because that's an estimate of when you're starting to get into this phase, obviously.
"Because of how talented he is, we were hoping to be able to have him pitch into his seventh month and have him pitch into October, but now he's feeling the fatigue. He's at that point where he can no longer pitch without going into a real danger zone, and he would require two weeks of no throwing and two weeks of progression. It was dictated for us."
Buchholz was essentially going through a dead-arm phase.
"It wasn't really a feel," he said. "It was just something like, earlier in the year, you can throw a ball and it just seems to take off. And the last couple of weeks, it's just, during the game, I feel great, but on the side, whenever I'm throwing, it just feels like it's not coming out of my hand as well as it was. It's not like there was any pain or anything. It just felt a little dead. Like I said, I'll just go about it in the right way, work hard and get stronger next year."
This winter figures to be crucial in how long Buchholz can pitch in 2008.
"He needs to be a really hard worker this winter," Epstein said. "He needs to put in the hard work this winter so that next September he's really strong going into the postseason. He's looked us in the eye and promised he would do that. We believe him, and we'll help provide him the proper structure to make sure that happens."
The Red Sox stressed that Buchholz is not injured. The fear was that if he kept pitching, that could have changed. The Red Sox learned that lesson first-hand with closer Jonathan Papelbon last year and weren't about to have history repeat itself with Buchholz.
"There's some fatigue, and with fatigue comes some lacking in strength that, again, we've been very aware of," said Francona. "It happens with all young pitchers. But we're determined not to learn the hard way. It's somewhat disappointing because of how exciting this kid is. But it's a decision that we made as an organization, united."
And Buchholz will go home with some sense of remorse, wondering what the October stage could have been like at this stage of his career. But he also vowed to come back strong next year.
"I've accomplished every goal that I've set for myself this year," he said. "It's been a lot of fun being up here for the month, getting to hang out with everyone I've been watching on TV for years now. The goals that I set, I accomplished them, and then a little bit more when I got up here. I had a blast with it. This offseason will be all business, and I'll be back here next year."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.