Ever since Clay Buchholz made his major league debut in 2007, pitching a no-hitter in just his second start, the Red Sox have had high hopes for the lanky right-hander from Lumberton, Texas. Although the no-hitter is undoubtedly the most notable game of Buchholz's career to this point, it cannot be the pinnacle for the now-25-year-old.
Watching the consistently inconsistent Buchholz over the subsequent two seasons, however, could lead one to believe just that: that it would prove to be the highlight of a flash-in-the-pan career. After a terrific four appearances (during which he went 3-1 with a 1.59 ERA) in his rookie season, he pitched just 76 innings in 16 games in 2008, going 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA. In 2009, he got off to a late, making 16 starts for Triple-A Pawtucket. Once called up, he finished 7-4 with a 4.21 ERA in 16 big league starts.
Statistics aside, he has shown that he has the capacity to be a cornerstone of the Red Sox' rotation. This is the year in which Buchholz will be expected to take that next step. The team is counting on him to find the confidence to produce consistently throughout an entire season at the major league level, and he will be vital to the Red Sox' new run prevention strategy.
The starting rotation — despite featuring names like Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka — needs Buchholz. Wakefield has proven his knuckleball is as solid as ever, but the 43-year-old had surgery in the offseason, and it may be just a matter of time before he reaggravates his back. Matsuzaka, too, is still recovering from a neck and back injury which has hampered him all spring. With injuries continuing to pose a threat to the rotation — and the fact that Beckett is noticeably better following a solid amount of rest — Buchholz is likely to play an important role in keeping the other starters on their normal rest and allowing them to stay strong and productive.
Despite his lack of consistency to this point — and because of the occasional glimmers of potential — general manager Theo Epstein has hung on to the budding right-hander, even when pitchers like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee were available on the trade market. This is Buchholz's time to prove Epstein right.
Buchholz started to prove him right late in the 2009 season. From Aug. 19 to Sept. 24, he won six straight decisions, posted a 2.44 ERA and only once failed to pitch six-plus innings. During that period of eight starts, he struck out 38 batters and walked just 14 in 51 2/3 innings, allowing 39 hits, just a .206 batting average against. In his ALDS start against the Angels, he left the mound with a 5-1 lead.
If Buchholz continues that trend and performs as Red Sox management hopes he will in 2010, we can chalk up the hot and cold streaks (and the resulting trips down I-95 to Pawtucket) to his youth. (Ironically, it's the same excuse we made for the laptop incident back in 2004). Then we can all forget about riding the sometimes fun, sometimes sickening Buchholz roller coaster.
Buchholz has shown some shakiness in spring training, posting a 9.53 ERA across 11 1/3 innings to this point. But his last start against the Minnesota Twins on Sunday proved that he's headed in the right direction. He went 4 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on five hits, then settled down late, striking out seven and retiring the last 10 men he faced.
His improved level of maturity will bring confidence, and everything else should fall into place. In past seasons, Buchholz has been vocal about his struggles with confidence and how that can bring about a lack of consistency. But when he sticks to his guns and throws his fastball and slider with conviction and self-assurance, he's tough to hit.
"Sometimes he tries to be too fine, and then he gets himself down in the count, or he's thinking about other things," manager Terry Francona told NESN.com. "When he just attacks the strike zone down, things usually have a way of working out without having to think about 50 different things. If he simplifies it, his stuff is so good."
The new bar is set. The Red Sox aren't looking for a no-hitter hero. For their rotation to be successful, they need a young, consistent workhorse to shoulder a full season's worth of starting responsibilities. This is the year for Buchholz to step up.
From now until Opening Day, NESN.com will run down 25 things that need to happen for the Red Sox to win the World Series.
March 31: Players in contract years and impending free agents can't be distractions.