FORT MYERS, Fla. — In sports, time has a way of standing still, freezing people at a particular point in their lives. It’s easy to think of Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz as the lanky, soft-spoken kid from Texas. But the 30-year-old Buchholz is preparing for his ninth season. He is the doyen of a remade Red Sox rotation and the longest-tenured member of the pitching staff.
He no longer has the luxury of being a backup singer. The Red Sox need Buchholz to be a front man, both in terms of his performance on the mound and in the clubhouse. The signs so far in southwest Florida point to Buchholz being ready for a bounce-back season and the role of staff ace. He’s healthy. His mechanics are sound. His confidence is high.
Buchholz is a fitting leading man for the Sox’ unpredictable starting five, given his history of vacillating between masterful and maddening, unhittable and hurt. He and the rest of the staff are taking the challenge of being identified as the potential sinkhole in the Sox’ roster personally.
“Yeah, that’s what makes it fun whenever you hear somebody on TV or radio say you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” said Buchholz. “Whenever you do it for an extended period of time, and they have to go back on what they were saying and say, ‘Well, maybe everybody was wrong or something.’ That’s happened to me a couple of times, and it makes it feel a lot better whenever that is the case.
“I think everything will be fine. I don’t think there is a guy on this pitching staff, even in the bullpen that doesn’t believe that we are capable of doing anything that anybody else does. We might not have all the names behind it, but we definitely got a lot of talent.”
Buchholz downplayed the staff leader mantle, insisting that his fellow starters are all grown men and don’t need anybody telling them what to do.
But it’s Buchholz who has told Boston neophytes Rick Porcello and Wade Miley what to expect pitching in the baseball crucible of Boston. It was Buchholz who got the starters subversive T-shirts that needled the media for pronouncing the Sox as a team without an ace.
Red Sox manager John Farrell said Buchholz embracing his new role as staff elder statesman is the result of both personal and professional growth.
“I don’t know that he has gone out of his way to be more vocal. I think there is just a greater comfort with who he is and how long he has been here,” said Farrell. “That is as much as a person, as a player.
“He is more at ease with who he is and what is expected of him. I think as a starting pitcher in Boston there is a lot of expectation that goes on with that. I think he is more readily able to embrace that.”
Judging pitchers by spring training stats is like judging cars on how they navigate a speed bump in a parking lot, but Buchholz is 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA in his three spring outings. The bite is back on his changeup.
The 2014 season was miserable for Buchholz. After dealing with mysterious shoulder issues in 2013 that interrupted a brilliant season and lingered into the offseason, Buchholz was playing catch-up from the moment spring training started. It showed.
The Sox had to mothball him with a knee injury in May, when his earned run average read like a Las Vegas area code, 7.02. He said it wasn’t until midway through the season that he felt this arm strength return to normal.
Buchholz ended up 8-11 with a 5.34 ERA, the highest of the 78 pitchers who threw at least 170 innings last year.
This year Buchholz was able to throw before coming to camp.
“In the past couple of offseasons it was something where I didn’t really know when to start working out or when to start throwing,” said Buchholz. “It’s hard to come into camp when you’re not ready and everybody expects you to be ready. Everything is feeling good, and that’s a good spot to be in right now.”
The Red Sox are being Patriot-like with a silly charade of not confirming the obvious — Buchholz is the Opening Day starter.
No one is asking Buchholz to be Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez or even Jon Lester. But he is capable of being the No. 1 starter that many believe the Boston rotation is bereft of.
In 2010, he went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA. It’s forgotten that it was Buchholz, not Lester, who was the Sox’ best regular-season pitcher in 2013, starting 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA, before the shoulder woes.
Buchholz has the repertoire of an ace, but he hasn’t shown the durability.
Farrell has set a goal for Buchholz of making 33 starts and pitching 210 innings. That sound you hear is belly-laughing from those who look at Buchholz’s injury history and consider him to be more fragile than crystal stemware.
He has never made 30 starts in a season and his career high in innings pitched is 189⅓ .
“I think if I just make my starts the innings will take care of itself,” he said. “Everybody puts a number on innings. Innings are big, and that’s sort of been the cornerstone for being labeled an elite pitcher, or whatever you want to call it. I think if I make my starts every time my name is called this year innings and everything else will take care of itself. That’s how I’m looking at it.”
Buchholz said that when he first came up he kept to himself because that was how players like Tim Wakefield, Mike Timlin, Jason Varitek, Doug Mirabelli, and Curt Schilling wanted it. He didn’t speak unless spoken to.
Based on seniority and ability, there is no one for Buchholz to defer to any more.