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Adam Kaufman

Red Sox Have Now Seen the Best of Clay Buchholz

Maybe in a decade or two, long after Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz has thrown his last pitch in the major leagues, we’ll have a better understanding of the veteran and his puzzling pro career.

Since entering the bigs as a 22-year-old in 2007, we’ve truly seen a bit of everything.

A dazzling no-hitter at Fenway against the Orioles in just his second career start.

A 2-9 season with an ERA approaching 7 the following season.

A 17-win effort with a 2.33 ERA in 2010, the first of two All-Star campaigns, garnering well-deserved Cy Young consideration.

An assortment of injury-plagued average seasons.

A 12-1 year flanked by a 1.74 ERA, though hampered by a supposed rough night’s sleep and months of baseball inactivity thereafter.

And, now, just a season removed from the best year of his career – if only for a 16-game stretch – Buchholz is on the verge of having his worst.

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Following a three-plus innings stint against the Braves in which the veteran surrendered six runs on four hits and a career-high eight walks, his ERA is a staggering 7.02 – the worst among all qualifying major leaguers. He even put some of the blame on not being ready for the Georgia heat.

Oy.

While Boston pitching coach Juan Nieves uttered the words, “I wonder how healthy he is” after the performance, Buchholz continues to swear he’s fine physically; that his issues are mechanical. That’s been backed up by manager John Farrell and general manager Ben Cherington.

Maybe he is (though hopefully he isn’t – more on that later), but one thing is clear: We’ve seen the best of Clay Buchholz. In a Red Sox uniform. Anywhere.

It’s a sad reality for a 29-year-old former first round pick who was positively brilliant as recently as the first half of 2013. But something has changed, be it physically, mentally, personally, or whatever’s left.

The writing was on the wall – not that any of us knew to what degree – when Farrell slotted Buchholz as the Sox’ fifth starter to begin the 2014 season. Something was off, even after an off-season. It showed from his first start in April.

The righty allowed six runs on 13 hits in just 4 1/3 innings in his season debut against the Brewers. Three starts later, six more runs on seven hits in 2 1/3 frames versus the Orioles. This month, he’s allowed six runs on two additional occasions, 29 hits over a three-start stretch, he’s failed to make it out of the fifth inning in three of his last four outings and, of course, now the eight walks (his previous high was five). Mostly downs, very few ups, and it’s getting progressively worse.

In 2013, the Red Sox were 14-2 in Buchholz’s starts. This year, that record is 4-6.

Over 50 innings, the Texas native has allowed 75 hits, 39 earned runs (43 total), 24 walks, and he’s struck out 39. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 1.63, the worst of his eight career seasons. His WHIP is 1.98, again the highest.

The questions are innumerable and the answers are few.

Regardless of what he and those around him are saying, is Buchholz hurt? Should he be the latest of the beaten-down Boston boys to hit the disabled list? Physically, is that frail-looking exterior strong enough to pitch 30 games in a single season? (To date, the answer is no.)

If he’s not hurt, would a head-clearing trip to the DL benefit him, regardless?

If it’s mental – and this is admittedly very premature – are we seeing the early signs of another guy bound to fall victim to the same erratic mound success that claimed the likes of Mark Wohlers, Rick Ankiel and, you guessed it, Daniel Bard?

Is it a confidence issue? It wouldn’t seem out of the question for a guy obsessed with feeling just so in order to have comfort on a big league mound, but there was hope he’d overcome that hurdle when facing the Cardinals last October without his best stuff.

Buchholz still has minor league options available, if he agreed to the demotion. Would the Red Sox be best suited to let him work through his struggles against lesser competition in Pawtucket?

Somewhere in here, there’s a joke about bullfrog, too.

“I’m healthy,” Buchholz reiterated to reporters after Monday’s 8-6 rally in Atlanta, acknowledging that his issues are in fact mechanical after altering his delivery following last season’s shoulder injury. “I’m going to take the ball whenever they give it to me. I’m never beaten before I step on the field.

“Whenever you are hurt, you try to find a way to throw so it doesn’t hurt,” he continued. “And that might not be the exact same way you pitched prior to that. There’s a little rust in between last year’s and this year’s mechanics.”

His mechanics have been awful, as has his location. His velocity has fluctuated, as well. Sometimes, rather than pitching, he’s simply throwing. Perhaps this is all as simple as over-thinking steps that used to come without hesitation.

Now, there’s one chief hesitation – what to do with Buchholz.

Farrell didn’t indicate whether the pitcher will make his next start but, I’m telling you right now, he won’t. He can’t. It’s too difficult on a team begging for wins after seeing a 10-game skid barely come to an end.

“We’ve got to look at this a little bit closer,” said the skipper. “We’ve got to continue to talk about what he’s currently going through and what’s best for him and what’s best for us.”

Seemingly, any spot starter from down in Pawtucket (or even Chris Capuano?) is a better alternative at this stage. Surely any of them could replicate an ERA over 7 in 50 innings.

There’s a lot of season left, but Buchholz’s future is becoming increasingly complicated. He’s due $12 million in 2015 – a relative bargain for someone of his talents – and Boston holds team options for each of the following two seasons through 2017 (at $13M and $13.5M, respectively).

All the while, he was supposed to be the ace on this team going forward, or at least a complement to Jon Lester. Now, there’s a very realistic chance Lester will be playing elsewhere next spring. If he chases more dough in another city and Boston opts to cut bait with Buchholz (whose trade value would be very low right now), who’s left to lead the rotation? Are the kids ready? That’s an awful lot to ask.

Questions like that will work themselves out – but will Buchholz? That’s a huge step in the process.

As mentioned earlier, hopefully the vet is lying and his struggles are injury-related. If so, it’s easy to explain and, hopefully in due time, correct. It would also speak to his mental toughness and passion as a competitor in the face of adversity. If mental or pertaining to confidence, however, he may never overcome these setbacks. We’ve seen that road traveled dozens of times before.

I firmly believe Clay Buchholz will be good again. He’s not the pitcher we celebrated in the early months of 2013, but he’s not this bad either. He’s somewhere in between and has to rediscover that guy.

But, even when he does, the pitcher with the ace-like stuff is no more. We’ve seen the best of Buchholz, and it was far too brief.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman


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