In 2007, Clay Buchholz introduced himself to Red Sox fans with a no-hitter. In 2010, he pitched to a 2.33 ERA over 173 innings of work. In 2013, he had one of the best 12-game stretches this franchise has seen on the mound, producing a 1.71 ERA and holding opposing batters to an anemic line of .195/.265/.270 from April 3rd to June 8th.
For half a year now, Buchholz has heard how the Red Sox rotation lacks an ace. He's heard that he lacks the mental toughness, doesn't want it enough, or just plain isn't good enough to be that ace. He's heard it from the papers, from the networks, and from the fans. And one expects by this point he's heard it a thousand times too often.
On Monday, Clay Buchholz responded. His role as the Opening Day starter had been seized upon by so many as yet another opportunity to poke fun at a weak Red Sox rotation, but Buchholz turned it into a statement game. Seven innings, nine strikeouts, four Phillies baserunners, and not a single run. Matched up against the man who could have saved the Red Sox rotation in Cole Hamels, Clay Buchholz proved the better pitcher Monday afternoon, and it wasn't particularly close.
One game does not an ace make, of course. Clay Buchholz has a very long road ahead of him if that's what he wants to be for the Red Sox. But there's reason to read a little more into this game than any other random one-off start, in large part because of who Clay Buchholz is.
When he's right, Buchholz can be one of the best arms in the game. But right for Buchholz doesn't just mean "off the disabled list." Instead, Buchholz has followed a fairly regular cycle. His periods of excellence don't end with slumps, but injuries. The injuries are followed by long recovery periods that are as much a matter of on-field struggles as off-the-field rehab. Generally, those rough periods following injuries include signs of improvement as the injury gets further in the past before, with a full offseason to reset, Buchholz finds himself back to full strength.
The Red Sox build their bullpens unconventionally
During Ben Cherington's tenure as GM, the Red Sox have sought out unconventional but effective relievers in building the team's bullpen, saving money in the process.
That last bit is conjecture right now, unfortunately. So far we've seen the other parts occur twice a piece, and now it's up to Buchholz to complete the cycle with another stretch of excellence. If Monday is any indication, if his fantastic off-speed movement and location are more than just a one-off fluke, he's prepared to do exactly that. It's going to take a couple more games for Buchholz to prove that the feel for those pitches really is here to stay, but it shouldn't take much more than that to inspire some faith. Once Buchholz has that feel locked in, he doesn't tend to just lose it out of nowhere.
Instead, the question will be how long he can stay healthy. It's the serious injuries (however strange said injury may be) that send Buchholz spiraling out of control for long periods of time. It's entirely valid to worry that Buchholz may find his way onto the disabled list and start the cycle over. Two injuries isn't necessarily enough to put Buchholz in Sizemore territory, but until he goes the next three years without missing a game it's going to be hard to trust that Buchholz will last the year.
For as long as he is healthy, though, Buchholz' performance Monday night was a welcome reminder of what he can be. That, if the Red Sox could not and cannot claim to have a sure thing ace, they do have a player in Clay Buchholz who has certainly looked the part in the past, and looked it again on Opening Day.