Friday, September 9, 2016

Two unlikely heroes are keys to Red Sox winning the AL East

Is Koji back to form? Red Sox fans hope so.

Despite all the firepower in the Red Sox lineup and a revitalized pitching staff led by a likely 20-game winner, two guys with ERAs north of 4.35 who were all but forgotten a few months ago could play a major factor in Boston's playoff chances:

Clay Buchholz and Koji Uehara.

Buchholz was a much-maligned mop-up man earlier in the summer after flaming out as a starter, It was thought that his days in Boston were all but done, his great potential never quite realized due to injuries and inconsistency. From July 2 to July 20, the bullpen outcast did not appear in a game.

Then, suddenly, he had a shot at redemption. After several other relievers failed as eighth-inning setup men, John Farrell gave Buchholz the ball -- and he surprised everyone by embracing the role. Suddenly the Red Sox were not blowing games late, or at least not as often.
Buchholz has earned his teammates' respect.

Knuckleballer Steven Wright's right shoulder injury offered yet another opportunity: the chance for Buchholz to reclaim a spot in the starting rotation. Once again he answered the call, this time with a string of solid performances that sustained the club in the first weeks after Wright went down.

Overall, Buchholz has been one of Boston's best pitchers for two months. In his past 12 appearances, including 4 starts, he has a 2.20 ERA over 32.2 innings, with 22 strikeouts, 8 walks, and a .220 opponent's batting average.

If Wright's not right, the Sox need Clay to stay.

Now, with Wright's problem apparently bigger than initially expected, these developments become every more important. There is a good chance Wright will not return this year, leaving it up to Buchholz to hold down a permanent spot in the rotation -- at least for the remainder of the regular season.

If there is more than just a regular season for Boston in 2016 also depends on Uehara. The game-closing hero of 2013 was not expected to do as much this year, with the Red Sox picking up All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Carson Smith. When Smith suffered a spring-training injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery, Koji stepped in and was up-and-down in the eighth-inning role.

Uehara later filled in admirably as closer when Kimbrel was hurt in July, and Koji looked to be getting on one of his hot streaks in late July when he too went on the DL with a torn pectoral muscle. Like Buchholz, fans wrote off Uehara at this point, especially given his advanced age of 41.

Koji's July injury looked bad.

But just wait a minute...

Koji got through rehab faster than expected, and was brought off the DL this week-- amazingly pitching a perfect eighth inning (with two strikeouts) Wednesday night at San Diego. He threw 11 strikes on 13 pitches and said afterward that he felt great.

Can Koji step back into a setup role, and spell Kimbrel at closer when needed?

Can Buchholz keep turning in stalwart performances in his return from the dead?

The answers to both questions will go a long way in determining the fate of the Red Sox during the next wild 23-game race to the finish.

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