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Buchholz Progressing; Will He Return In 2011?

Yesterday, prior to game one of a four-game series with the Rays, Clay Buchholz took part in a bullpen session. This may not sound like a big deal, but Buchholz was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back in the first week of August, and it's kept him off of the mound even longer than that. Boston never ruled out a return in 2011, but it was clear that, unless Buchholz were able to return without jeopardizing his future with the team, he wouldn't see game action again.

With Boston just three games up on Tampa Bay for the Wild Card, John Lackey on his way to posting the loftiest ERA in the history of the franchise for a pitcher with as many innings as he has thrown, and Erik Bedard slowly nursing his way back into the rotation, there is nothing wrong with hoping that Buchholz will be back before the year ends. Despite the recent struggles, this isn't a time for panic  just yet, but it is a time to hope for better outcomes, and the return of one of Boston's most talented young players fits under the better outcomes label.

Buchholz threw 30 pitches in his side session, and is expected to have a second bullpen session on Saturday. How he and his back feel the day after these throwing sessions is key for whether he will return or not: if he is throwing off of a mound without pain after a few separate sessions, then it's possible that he is ready to return to action. As Corey Dawkins and Ben Lindbergh stated when he was diagnosed, it's possible, but not simple:

An L2 second lumbar vertebra stress fracture is not as common as one lower in the lumbar spine, but it doesn't necessarily rule him out for the rest of the season. He will follow a very detailed five-tier program to try to get back in time for the playoffs, but it won't be easy.    

Getting Buchholz back would accomplish one of two things. If Bedard's lat and knee just won't stop hurting, and he can't get on the mound, then Buchholz would be able to replace the man who was brought in to replace him in the first place. If Bedard is ready to go, though, and Buchholz has returned, it is almost assuredly John Lackey who would be bumped from the playoff rotation.

Lackey has the high price tag, and it's pretty clear his teammates and managers love the guy despite his struggles, but the Sox will put the best rotation together that they can. Just like that rotation wouldn't include Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, or Kyle Weiland, it likely wouldn't include Lackey.

That's what getting Buchholz back would mean. He may not be as sharp as we expect if he does make a return, given he's been out for so long, but chances are good he would still be able to out-pitch Lackey. And, as long as coming back this year isn't causing further damage to Buchholz in any way, then that is all that matters.