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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Clay Buchholz and the Confident Art of Denial

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Bill Greene/Globe Staff

"That's a tough subject, just on the simple fact that I know there's nothing left for me in Triple-A. I know that I've done my time there and had a lot of success at the Triple-A level, Double-A level. And the only way to get better, in my mind, is to face Big League hitters and have one good inning, one good start against a Big League lineup, and I think that's where the confidence and mindset will feed off of." - Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz, May 28, 2014.

Not surprisingly, Clay Buchholz still doesn’t get it.

Less than three weeks after his comments to Comcast’s Trenni Kusnierek and after one rehab start in – yes – that menial land of Triple-A Pawtucket, under his belt, the confounding Red Sox pitcher remains in no man’s land. He has no dependable compass hinting at what remains for him in an abhorrent 2014, nor what’s in store for the rest of his career, which, frankly, could very well be at a Daniel Bard-Rick Ankiel-type crossroads.

For now, though, Buchholz is in the midst of a rehab stint he apparently feels is beneath him, even as he struggled Saturday in his first start at McCoy Stadium, giving up three runs on four hits (two home runs) over 4 2/3 innings. On the bright side, Buchholz threw 62 pitches, 42 for strikes, and then proclaimed himself all set for a return to the Red Sox.

“I’d rather go right back up. I think I can,” Buchholz - 2-4 with a 7.02 ERA at the major league level this season - told the Providence Journal.

The Red Sox' response: Think again, dude.

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“Clay went out and was able to accomplish, for the most part, some of the delivery adjustments he’s been working on,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said Monday. “Overall strikes were improved. We recognize what took place in the line score inside that, but higher percentage of strikes, better power overall and some more defined shape to the individual types of pitches. We need to get him up to 90 pitches or so this next outing.”

That will be Thursday in Rochester, N.Y., and if Buchholz gets his act in gear for that start, the Red Sox will have a difficult decision to make.

How do they tell the 29-year-old hurler that he’s staying in Triple-A?

OK, OK, so that, unfortunately, is not likely to happen. Buchholz still has minor league options at the Red Sox’ disposal, but as a player with more than five years of service, he would have to consent to such a demotion, and based on how he sees himself fit for big league action, such an admittance isn’t coming any time soon.

But the bottom line is, the Red Sox are 10-9 since sending him away, no grand feat, but hey, on a team struggling to find the .500 mark all season long, Boston will take it.

It must pain the Red Sox to have to address Buchholz, especially considering that it lends them the headache of having to figure out what to do with Brandon Workman, who has pitched his way to earning a spot in the rotation in every single way that Buchholz has choked on. Since Buchholz’s disappearance, Workman is 1-0 with a 2.74 ERA over 23 innings pitched. Opposing hitters are batting only .175 against him, and he’s also struck out 18 of the 90 batters he’s faced over that stretch, allowing only 14 hits.

To put Workman vs. Buchholz in some perspective, the latter allowed 13 hits in one start earlier this season.

In a similar, but lesser vein, Rubby De La Rosa (2-2, 2.84 ERA) has given Boston something to think about when Felix Doubront comes off the disabled list, where he landed after being attacked by his car door. But it essentially comes down to two spots for four pitchers, barring a possible trade of Jake Peavy, John Lackey, or Jon Lester prior to the July 31 trading deadline. Workman should be a shoe-in to stay in the starting rotation. It’s a tossup as to who’s more of a long-term answer between Doubront and De La Rosa, but the lefty is indeed more polished. As for Buchholz, does he really have to come back?

Despite the convenient fact that he was placed on the disabled list with a “hyperextended knee” last month, does anybody truly think that whatever befell Buchholz this season can be cured in a single rehab start in the minors? Besides Buchholz himself that is? The pitcher is a mental mess, a mechanical breakdown, and a merry-go-round of denial. “I know there's nothing left for me in Triple-A.”

In less than two months, Buchholz will be 30 years old. He currently sports a 60-37 record over his eight-year career. He has two World Series wins, a no-hitter, and has made a pair of All-Star teams. And yet, we don’t have the slightest, $%&*%$# clue of what kind of pitcher Clay Buchholz is or can be. He’s like a maddeningly frustrating Daisuke Matsuzaka start stretched out over an entire career.

“I know I’m good,” Buchholz recently told the Boston Herald. “I know whenever I’m physically capable of going out and pitching I feel like I’m one of the best in the game.”

Buchholz constantly speaks of confidence, yet his view of himself often seems like a bad paint job on a rickety wooden fence, shaky and inevitably set to fall apart. Don’t tell me the fence is painted; show me how well you can do it. That’s the part of the equation Buchholz either really, somehow doesn’t get, or he’s in such refusal of the reality he’s in that he can’t grasp it.

Buchholz is signed through 2015 for $12 million, and the club holds a $245,000 buyout for his $13 million team option in 2016, which means maybe next season you’ll see Buchholz finally “get it” back again, with that kind of cash in the crosshairs of his career. But he doesn’t deserve to be in Boston the way he’s pitched, and if he does, then it should be a role fitted for him once the Sox find something oh, so wrong with the bullpen’s Edward Mujica. Bring him back if you have to; don’t let him anywhere near the rotation.

After all, if he thinks he can re-gain his confidence after one good inning in the big leagues, then Clay Buchholz hasn’t watched any of Clay Buchholz lately.

The Red Sox have been better without him. Marginally better, but better all the same. The easy decision should be to let him hang out with the kids in the dregs of Triple-A for a while longer, at least until he finds himself. Good luck to him in that endeavor.

Nobody has ever been able to pin down the real Clay Buchholz. Why should now be any different?


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