FORT MYERS, Fla. — It is the story that never ends.
Is this the season Clay Buchholz emerges as the ace?
Is this the season Buchholz has no choice?
It’s now or never. There’s no more hiding between Jon Lester or John Lackey or tagging along behind Jake Peavy.
Nowhere to hide.
Buchholz is the elder statesman on a five-man pitching staff.
He’ll be 31 in August. He pitched a no-hitter in his second major league start — Sept. 1, 2007, a 10-0 win over Baltimore. He’s got two rings and has made two All-Star teams. He’s dominated in stretches — like when he went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 2013, matching Max Scherzer start for start until neck and shoulder injuries acted up, rendering him pretty much useless for the remainder of the season.
Or in 2010, when he was 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA.
He’s had stretches where he gets everyone out. He’s had stretches where the opposition wears him out.
He’s had injuries that have held him back. But he’s a $12 million pitcher who has never pitched 200 innings in a season during his major league career.
His best friends are guys such as Lester and Lackey who are the ultimate warriors, and now, once and for all, Buchholz needs to apply those traits to himself.
He has $13 million guaranteed for 2015, and two team options for 2016 and 2017.
When asked if he would love to be the Opening Day starter, Buchholz seemed excited by the question.
“Yeah,” Buchholz said. “That’s one of those things where after Opening Day it doesn’t matter if you’re three or four or five. Opening Day is the one spot where there’s such buildup to it. It’s a pretty big focal point in starting the season. The buildup for Opening Day. It would be an honor. That’s why you play baseball. Opening Day is the biggest day other than pitching in the playoffs.”
Buchholz never really has had to be a leader. Someone else on the staff always has been there to do that.
“It was a change last year,” he said. “Last year was awkward from being a guy who followed other guys around to being a guy that younger guys would ask questions to. But I learned a lot from it. It makes you pay attention to what you’re doing as far as getting your work done. People looking at you, rather [than] people looking past you.”
So he’ll miss his chicken-and-beer buddies. They had good times. They grew up together. They did some things they probably regret. But they won.
“I’ve said it for a long time,’’ Buchholz said. “There’s no replacing Jon Lester. His track record here was incredible. He had an opportunity to go somewhere else to play baseball for a lot of money. One of the fun parts of being here is if you can pitch and hit well here, you can do it anywhere.”
“I’ve learned a lot the last couple of years,” he added. “Being healthy is first and foremost for anybody. But for me, it starts with health. That’s one of the focal points.”
Buchholz had minor knee surgery at the end of last season to repair a torn meniscus. He said he took three weeks off, then went back to work. He’s never been the biggest guy. Thin frame at 6 feet 3 inches and 190 pounds. And he still looks the same.
“I think with good health you have confidence,’’ Buchholz said. “When someone is confident of making pitches, it makes you that much better. Hope you don’t miss middle and give up a home run. That’s the difference. Lester and Lackey made a career of that. That’s what they do. Even if they aren’t confident, you don’t see it on the mound. If you’re not having a good day, don’t let anyone else know it.
“ Whenever I’m healthy, I’m confident.”
We ask the same questions every year. Has he done anything to make himself more durable to withstand a 200-inning, 30-start season?
“Baseball has moved to a more functional way of working out,’’ Buchholz said. “I think the days of the heavy weightlifting are gone. We still lift weights, but more core work has developed the last five years. I’ve felt as good as I have.”
Buchholz said he worked out with Lackey and Brandon Workman in the offseason. Buchholz’s and Workman’s workouts were overseen by the Red Sox strength and conditioning staff.
Even though Buchholz had torn his meniscus by midseason, he played through it. He said it rarely bothered him enough for it to be a concern, but maybe it was an issue. He struggled for a long time. We never really saw the Buchholz of early 2013.
“I had a cyst on the inside of my knee when they took an MRI and that’s when they discovered it was torn,” Buchholz said.
His 8-11, 5.34 ERA in 2014 just won’t cut it again. If that’s repeated, the Red Sox will go nowhere.
But in their 2015 projections, the Red Sox believe Buchholz could become a force again. That reason, in part, was why they didn’t go the extra mile on Lester, didn’t entertain James Shields, or haven’t give up some of their prospects for Cole Hamels.
The Red Sox believe Rick Porcello, age 26, is a potential ace, especially heading into his free agent year. But Buchholz can’t look at Porcello as the next guy he gets lost behind.
This will be Buchholz’s eighth season as a Red Sox.
It’s his rotation to lead.
It’s his time.
He’s got five pitches and there have been times when he’s had command of all of them. There have been times — such as early 2013 — when he was one of a handful of dominating pitchers.
So he’s had plenty to draw from.
The good, the bad, and the ugly, individually, and as a team.
“I heard what [Dustin] Pedroia said, the way the team in 2013 jelled together and everybody was one,” Buchholz said. “It was a team thing off the field. When teams do that, that’s something special. I think everyone is happy with the rebuilding phase. Ownership, front office, they’ve done a great job to put us in position to be a great team again.”
You know how the Red Sox could be a great team?
If Buchholz emerges as that dominating guy. Be the 2013 guy, only with 33 starts and 200 innings.
Be the guy at the front of the rotation.
Be the guy Lester was. He wanted to be the ace; the guy everyone else depended on every time he took the mound.
That’s what Red Sox Nation wants to hear.
That’s what they want to see out of Clay Buchholz after all these years.