"I saw a prediction in the paper," Buehrle said recently when asked if there was any chance he'd become the next Randy Johnson, joining the elite club of pitchers to win 300 games. "I'd need 17 wins for another 10 years. I'll be 41 in 2020. If I had to bet right now, there's no way in hell I'll still be pitching when I'm 41."
It's no mystery why the southpaw anchor of the White Sox staff makes the short list of active pitchers who might have a shot, no matter how long, of reaching 300. He's only 30, has already won 128 games and is one of those durable, mid-career studs whose mechanics haven't changed over the years and who has been able to rely on location and finesse rather than velocity. The older Buehrle gets, the more things stay the same; he eats up innings like they're deep-dish pizzas, maintains masterful command of the plate, keeps batted balls in play and works uncannily fast.
The three-time All-Star has again been up to his old tricks this season, his ninth full in the bigs. Through 13 starts he's compiled a very respectable 6-2 record and 3.78 ERA. He's also on pace to meet or better his career lows in hits, runs, earned runs and walks and looks like a lock to maintain his career-long streak of more than 200 innings pitched. In fact, he's tops in the majors in total innings pitched since 2001, with 1,883.
"Vintage Buehrle out there," said Paul Konerko, who has watched from first base since the St. Charles, Mo., native debuted as a rookie in 2000. "I'm sure he's had to make adjustments, but what he's doing now is exactly the same as what he was doing when he first came up."
Very quietly, Buehrle has been putting together a career year while shouldering more of the burden for the White Sox than perhaps during any other season of his career. Chicago is off to its second-worst start in the past six years, sitting four games below .500 and four games behind the American League Central-leading Tigers. The once explosive South Siders are scoring only 4.13 runs per nine innings, second-worst in the AL and, other than a four-game winning streak late last month, haven't been able to piece together more than two victories in a row.
The Sox have twice called on Buehrle to stanch the bleeding and stop their biggest slides of '09. Early last month, he put forth his best start of the season, striking out five and allowing one hit, one walk and no runs over eight innings against Detroit to halt a four-game Sox losing spell. Twelve days later, he delivered again, snapping a five-game Chicago winless streak with a victory over the Twins.
That kind of responsibility should make a pitcher keenly aware of how valuable he is, but it seems Buehrle doesn't pay attention. "We could win 10 in a row or lose 10 in a row," he said. "I don't go out there thinking I've got to win today's game. I'm still the same out there. I don't put any more pressure on myself."
It doesn't hurt the ChiSox score a shade more than five runs per nine innings when Buehrle takes the mound, or that a little luck has played into his year as well, as he is quick to point out. To wit: Late last month against Pittsburgh Buehrle surrendered only one run despite allowing the Pirates to tattoo him for 12 hits. The Sox lost that game 4-3 after surrendering the lead in the top of the ninth, but Buehrle had long been chased and didn't factor in the decision. "To me, that's not being good," he said. "That's being lucky in making certain pitches at certain times."
And to be fair, Buehrle has been rattled plenty, too. He gave up four earned runs in each of his two losses and has surrendered an alarming 13 earned runs in his last three starts, earning a loss and two no-decisions. But the crafty veteran rarely dwells on a poor performance, almost as though the results all bleed together.
"Nothing rattles him," Konerko said. "If he gets killed, he doesn't care. If he does well, he doesn't care. He just gets the ball the next time and does the exact same thing."
The White Sox are experiencing some major growing pains as they transition from the core of veterans who led the team to the '05 World Series title to a younger unit built on speed and aggressiveness. This season, many of the veterans are struggling while many of the youngsters have shown they aren't quite ready to take the baton. The one constant has been the front of the rotation, where Buehrle is the only starter in the game to win at least 10 games in a minimum of 30 starts while pitching at least 200 innings over the past eight years.
Buehrle's long-term outlook, though, has changed. This past March, he and wife Jamie celebrated the birth of their second child, daughter Brooklyn. "Once they're old enough to realize that I'm gone all the time, it's really going to sink in how hard this is," he said. "A couple more years and I can see myself calling it quits."
Buehrle has two years remaining on the four-year, $56 million extension he signed in '07. He'll make $14 million in each of the next two seasons before the deal expires in 2011. Beyond that, it's a big question mark. He told the Chicago Tribune in February that at most, he might consider a one-year deal. But it seems clear that, despite playing through his prime years, we won't see too much more from arguably the best homegrown pitcher in White Sox history.
And so, it seems we can remove Buehrle from the list of possible 300-game winners. When he does step away from the game, he'll likely do so the same way he leaves the mound, win or lose -- with no regrets, and as good as he was the day he first donned pinstripes.