TORONTO – Mark Buehrle walked off the field with his head down, and later sat in the dugout with his face in his hands, troubling images of frustration from one of the game’s most reliable and consistent pitchers over the past decade.
Another rough night for the classy left-hander meant another rough night for the Toronto Blue Jays, who continued their worrisome inability to string victories together in a 10-1 thumping from the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday.
So much for carrying over some good vibes from Tuesday’s heartening 9-7 win over the American League East leaders.
Give Clay Buchholz plenty of credit for that, as the resurgent right-hander really tightened the screws on the Blue Jays, holding them to two hits and three walks over seven dominant innings. And under the circumstances, Buehrle had virtually no margin for error, and the 34-year-old’s game simply isn’t there right now.
Just as he did last Friday in New York, Buehrle surrendered three home runs, and spent much of his outing like someone trying to wrap a leaky pipe with paper towel, allowing five runs on seven hits and three walks over 6.2 innings.
“He was definitely elevating the ball a little bit more than normal,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “As far as his location, his command, he’s been a little bit inconsistent. It’s just a matter of him locating a little bit better, getting ahead and pitching the way he’s pitched in the past.”
Stephen Drew – batting all of .154 coming in – opened the scoring in the second when he followed Will Middlebrooks’ two-out hit by pitch with his first homer of the season, while the Red Sox put things out of reach in the fourth, when Mike Napoli and Daniel Nava opened the frame with back-to-back dingers.
Through six starts thus far, Buehrle is surrendering home runs at an alarming rate of 2.43 per nine innings, more than twice his career average of 1.02 and last year’s 1.16.
“Location is the biggest thing, keeping the ball down,” said Buehrle. “When I’m throwing pitches and fastballs away I need to keep them down. Get strike one, and then keep the ball down and make them hit my pitches.
“I know the numbers aren’t the greatest but I feel like I’m right there. Take a few pitches out from pretty much the last couple of games, and I’ve had some pretty good starts. But the ball is not rolling my way right now.”
While the majority of that has come over his past two starts, there are other numbers that are concerning.
Heading into Wednesday, Buehrle’s fastball usage was up nearly 11 per cent over last year to 54.23 per cent, according to Bloomberg Sports, eating into the use of his cutter (down four per cent), curveball (down 2.5 per cent) and changeup (down 4.5 per cent).
Yet the heater has been among his hardest hit pitches, being hit at a .344 clip and slugged at .557, compared to .264 and .413 last year, while the line drive rate against him has jumped to 32.3 per cent from 21 per cent.
Opponents have also batted .357 and slugged .429 against the curve, but were hitting just .200 against the cutter and .250 versus the change.
“The first couple of starts I think we were throwing a little more fastballs, the last couple of games I feel like we’ve been mixing in some cutters and curveballs a lot more than we did the first couple of starts,” said Buehrle. “I wouldn’t have told you I was throwing more fastballs lately, but we’ve got to mix pitches.
“I’m not a fastball guy that pumps heaters all evening. I’ve got to execute pitches and keep the ball down.”
Changes in velocity offer no obvious answers, either, as while his fastball is down a tick to 84.5 from 85, according to fangraphs.com, his curve is two m.p.h. faster at 73.
Whether that’s a factor that’s contributed to his 6.43 ERA is unclear, but Buehrle isn’t the stabilizing force he was expected to be so far, with a track record that suggested you simply insert him into the rotation and count up his 200 innings and ERA in the high threes or low fours.
“He still has good stuff, that’s for sure, it’s just a matter of getting into a little bit of a groove, getting his changeup and sinker where he wants it to be, and being able to cut on both sides of the plate,” said Walker. “Overall it’s just been a little inconsistent, but his stuff is still plenty good enough to be successful.
“It’s a combination of pitch selection and execution. For him, you look at his past, it’s about executing the pitch.”
The Blue Jays certainly need better execution from Buehrle individually and the team collectively.
This one was respectable until the Red Sox exploded for four two-out runs in the seventh, the first on an Esmil Rogers wild pitch that allowed Buehrle’s walk of Jonny Gomes to score. A single and intentional walk later, Napoli hit his second of the game, a monster blast to the third deck in centre field.
It was pure garbage time after that.
Brett Lawrie broke the goose egg in the eighth with an RBI triple but Mike Carp added a fifth Red Sox homer in the ninth off Justin Germano, who mopped up the final two frames.
The Blue Jays look to J.A. Happ to try and secure their second series win in nine attempts Thursday against Ryan Dempster, the native of Gibsons, B.C., who’ll be pitching in Canada for the first time since April 2, 2002, when he faced the Montreal Expos as a member of the Florida Marlins.
While a sweep would have been better, taking two of three would still do them a world of good.
“It just seems like everything is going against us right now,” said Buehrle. “Guys are still working, we’ve got to keep battling, it’s early in the season, but we keep on saying early, we could be late here before too long.”
Exactly. April’s talk needs to become May’s action.