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Dependability, not talent, is the only thing holding Clay Buchholz back

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  March 11, 2014 02:09 PM

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Clay Buchholz started the second game of the season last year for the Red Sox, allowing one earned run over seven innings against the Yankees for his first win of 2013.

In 2014, he’s already been tabbed Boston’s fifth starter, a status not indicative of his talent, but his penchant to either break down or refuse to pitch at anything less than 100 percent.

Ahead of him in the Red Sox’ rotation: Jon Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, and Jake Peavy.

Buchholz, 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA last season, will start the season in a spot normally reserved for the John Burketts of the baseball world.

His reaction? Big whoop.

“I’ve known that since I got here, what they wanted to do with me,” Buchholz told WEEI.com. “It’s fine with me.”

There are really two ways to take Buchholz’s assessment of the Red Sox’ putting him in the back end of their plans. 1) He’s being a team player. 2) Like, what’s the rush, man?

Kudos to the Red Sox for doing all they can to maximize what they can possibly get out of Buchholz in 2014, but does it really matter? The righty has made as many as 28 starts in a season twice over his seven-year career, 64 in the other five years combined. The matter of Buchholz’s endurance isn’t anything new, of course, but it also comes with some eyebrow-raising scenarios that the Red Sox are quick to sweep beneath the Fenway sod.

Two seasons ago, Buchholz was hospitalized in intensive care with esophagitis, yet managed to drag himself to a pool party charity event at Foxwoods days later while his teammates were en route to Seattle. Last season’s disabled list stint occurred after Buchholz came down with a sore neck, allegedly suffered after he held his sleeping child.

"The night we got back from the road trip, just got in bed and had the little girl with me and I feel asleep like this [with her in the crook of his arm] instead of on my back like I usually do," Buchholz told ESPN Boston on May 30. "When I woke up the next morning it felt a little tight. So I came in here and have been getting treatment on it. I could pitch tomorrow if I had to, but I don't have to. So I'll take my time and get it all the way out and pitch in a couple more days."

A “couple more days” did indeed end up being on June 2, then June 8. After that, Buchholz made his next start on Sept. 10.

When Gordon Edes asked John Farrell last May if the injury was still baby-related, the Red Sox manager’s response spoke volumes: "That's the explanation," he said.

Great. Was it the reason, though?

This isn’t to doubt the severity of Buchholz’s medical history, but why must it always come with an air of mystery? Not to compare my own physique to that of one required to deliver a baseball at 90-plus miles per hour, but I have three kids. I’ve slept in more twisted pretzels than Barbapapa would know how to handle. It’s never been anything that’s taken three months to overcome.

In the grand scheme of things, where you start in the rotation in April really matters about as much as who’s tabbed to pitch the seventh on Aug. 3. But Farrell has the luxury of a veteran rotation that he can hide Buchholz in the No. 5 slot for now, which will give him some extra time before his first regular season start on April 5 against Milwaukee. Mind you, this is a guy who was a front-runner for the Cy Young Award last season after his 9-0, 1.71 ERA start.

Having a pitcher of that caliber going up against lesser-talented No. 5’s of the competition is definitely a boon for the Red Sox. But having to slot Buchholz there not only speaks to his brittle nature, but his dependability. Other than his 17-7 campaign of 2010, expectations for Buchholz have annually been disappointing despite flashes of brilliance.

How much of it is debilitating injury versus Buchholz’s refusal to pitch at anything less than 100 percent is something only he knows. You might as well just expect a 1-4 season from Buchholz this season as much as you could a 24-win Cy Young campaign. He’s a crapshoot, a talented enigma who can be dominant on the mound in the limited time that he decides to be on it.

"I get magnified because of the city we play in, the part of the country we play in, and everyone expects us to make a push for the World Series every year,” Buchholz told reporters on Monday. “This team as a whole gets scrutinized a little bit more but it is what it is. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because if people can't expect you to do something, you can’t expect yourself to do anything."

Heart of a bulldog, eh?

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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