Clay Buchholz, that’s what. And based on the right-hander’s anxious state leading to his Game 4 start, the Red Sox can’t be especially confident.
Oh, the Sox have other issues as they trail in the World Series, two games to one — issues at catcher, at shortstop and in the dugout when trying to figure how to get Mike Napoli into a game under National League rules.
But let’s start with Buchholz, who keeps saying he’s not 100 percent. Manager John Farrell does not dispute that assessment, but paints a rosier picture, saying Buchholz actually has felt better in recent days and should benefit from the adrenaline of a World Series start.
Other Red Sox players say Buchholz has fretted like this before, then thrown magnificently. Perhaps Buchholz is simply trying to lower expectations — he hasn’t been the same since missing three months with a shoulder injury. But frankly, he isn’t that savvy.
So, which Buchholz will we see? It’s anyone’s guess, but it would be an upset if he pitched more than six innings. And the Sox will want him to go at least that deep, considering that Jake Peavy lasted only four innings in Saturday night’s stunning 5-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Peavy is lined up for Game 7, if necessary, because the Sox wanted to push back Buchholz one more day and pitch him only once in the Series. Well, how is that trade of shortstop Jose Iglesias and three fringe prospects for Peavy and reliever Brayan Villarreal looking now? Peavy was ineffective in the ALCS, and was fortunate to allow only two runs in his first Series start.
Left-hander Felix Doubront probably will be available for one inning after throwing 25 pitches in relief of Peavy. Right-hander Ryan Dempster represents a multi-inning option. And if the Red Sox hit Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn — a not-unreasonable expectation — then their entire staff will operate with greater margin for error.
OK, but if the Sox are going to hit, Farrell needs to try some other hitters. Inserting Daniel Nava for Jonny Gomes in Game 3 was a start – Nava went 1-for-4 with two RBIs. Farrell also should consider benching shortstop Stephen Drew, who is 4-for-42 in the post-season, and going with Xander Bogaerts at short and Will Middlebrooks at third. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is another possibility to sit — he has made pivotal defensive mistakes in each of the last two games, and is in a 3-for-25 slump.
Saltalamacchia’s failure to catch a throw from Gomes in the seventh inning of Game 2 was an error, but somewhat excusable — Gomes’ throw was off-line, and Saltalamacchia tried to complete a catch-and-swipe in one motion.
Saltalamacchia’s throw to third with the score tied in the ninth inning of Game 3, on the other hand, was too risky. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia had thrown home to nail Yadier Molina for the second out after making a spectacular diving stop with the infield in on Jon Jay. Saltalamacchia should have just stopped there.
Maybe Saltalamacchia had a chance to throw out Allen Craig, who had hesitated at second instead of running on contact to third. But his throw went wide on Middlebrooks, triggering the chaotic final sequence, in which Middlebrooks was called for obstructing Craig, and the winning run scored on an error in a World Series game for the first time since the Bill Buckner play in 1986.
If Saltalamacchia was hitting, Farrell could justify sticking with him in the same way that he is justifying sticking with Drew, who at least provides stellar defense. But Saltalamacchia isn’t hitting. And David Ross is a viable alternative.
Listen, we all know the Sox are at a disadvantage playing under NL rules, because they can’t put Napoli and David Ortiz in the lineup at the same time. But that is all the more reason for Farrell to do everything possible to maximize his offense, particularly now with his team trailing in the Series.
Oh, Napoli took grounders at third base before Saturday night’s game, seemingly raising the possibility of a start at that position. But Farrell said he viewed Napoli as more of an option at third in a double-switch or in an emergency.
Napoli has played third only three times professionally, the last being in 2004, when he was in High A. Putting him at the position now would be extreme. Better Farrell should pick his spots better when determining when to use Napoli as a substitute. The manager admitted that he blew it in Game 3.
The place to use Napoli was with none on and one out in the ninth, but Farrell chose to allow right-hander Brandon Workman, a reliever with zero professional plate appearances, to face the Cardinals’ Trevor Rosenthal, a move that ended in a predictable strikeout.
Farrell said that with the score tied, he wanted to get more out of Workman. But the better move, as Farrell conceded afterward, would have been to make a double switch after Saltalamacchia grounded out to end the eighth, the precise moment when Workman entered the game.
Workman could have hit in Saltalamacchia’s spot, with Ross replacing Salty and batting ninth. Instead, the plan to use Workman for two innings backfired after he allowed a one-out single by Molina in the ninth, and Farrell pulled him for Koji Uehara. That’s right, Farrell gained only one out by failing to hit Napoli for Workman. Not good. Not good at all.
And so the Red Sox go to Game 4, with a pitcher who is less than 100 percent and a lineup that is at less than full strength. They’re too good to lose three straight in St. Louis and suffer elimination before ever getting back to Boston. But things need to change Sunday night. In the dugout. On the mound. At the plate.