It wasn’t long ago that Felix Doubront was making a case for himself as the Red Sox’ best starting pitcher. In a nine-start stretch between mid June and early August, Doubront allowed just 13 earned runs in 58 innings, for an ERA of 2.02. After early season struggles causing his ERA to balloon to 6.40 in May, the 25-year-old lefthander seemed to have found himself.
The Red Sox won Doubront’s outing against the Yankees on Friday night, improving their AL-best record to 86-57, but the victory had a lot to do with the efforts of Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino. The pair of stellar free-agent signings combined to go 5-for-8 with two homers and six RBI’s, four of them coming on Napoli’s seventh inning, opposite field grand slam. The win had very little to do with the efforts of their starting pitcher. By the time Doubront exited, after having recorded two outs in the fourth inning, he had allowed six earned runs on three hits and six walks, putting the Red Sox in a 6-2 hole out of which Napoli and Victorino’s heroics allowed them to dig.
It was only the latest in a series of poor starts by the again scuffling Doubront. Since August 4, on which he pitched seven scoreless innings against the Diamondbacks, he has yielded 22 earned runs in 30 innings, for an ERA of 6.60. He has pitched past the fourth inning just twice in six opportunities.
What Doubront’s evening on Friday might have done was provide an answer to a question the Red Sox have been pondering for weeks, which is what to do when Clay Buchholz returns from the disabled list. Buchholz was a legitimate Cy Young contender – 9-0, 1.71 ERA – when shoulder inflammation landed him on the DL in mid-June, and he has been inching back ever since, successfully throwing 71 pitches for Triple-A Pawtucket on Thursday. He is scheduled to rejoin the Sox’ rotation Tuesday.
While the club has not yet said who he will replace, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jake Peavy seem entrenched. The conventional wisdom had been that it would be veteran Ryan Dempster, who is 8-9 with a 4.79 ERA this season and once accumulated extensive bullpen experience with the Cubs, that would drop from the rotation upon Buchholz's return.
After Friday, though, it seems clear Buchholz should take Doubront’s place. Despite his recent series of short outings, Doubront is now just seven innings shy of his professional high for innings pitched, 161 (set last year), and Friday might have confirmed that he is running out of gas. A move to the bullpen would likely prove rejuvenating for Doubront, and it would also provide another strikeout-throwing lefty to a unit that has lost a pair of former All-Star closers (Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan) for the season, and, despite the performances of Koji Uehara (1.12 ERA) and Craig Breslow (2.12) is only middling – its cumulative ERA of 3.60 ranks 16th. With Buchholz back in the rotation, and Doubront in the `pen, the best team in the American League appears as if it is about to become even better.