Clay Buchholz's most compelling case for a return to the rotation also highlighted his unfamiliar and uncertain position.
For the first time since his removal from the rotation three weeks ago, Buchholz on Thursday offered a glimpse of the pitcher who looked like he can help in the rotation. With three shutout innings against Baltimore in which he showed a complete arsenal — most notably a fastball-changeup combination that completely unbalanced hitters — the righthander showed the type of pitcher he insists he can be.
Yet the outing produced as many questions as answers, most notably: When will he pitch again? And in what role? Those inquiries, in turn, highlighted the strange terrain that Buchholz is trying to navigate.
The question of when was answered Friday night after the Red Sox' 8-4 loss to the Mariners when it was announced that he would start Wednesday against the visiting White Sox.
The 31-year-old righthander has faced adversity and changes to his job description before. He's been on the outside of the rotation looking in, whether because of the struggles that resulted in his demotion to Double A in 2008 or the Sox' construction of starting depth that left him in Triple A for the first half of 2009. In recent years, he has dealt with a succession of injuries.
But in those instances, he had regular rotation opportunities — albeit in the minors — to pitch his way back, to make statements on the mound that he was no longer consumed by struggles. That hasn't been the case over the past three weeks.
"It's hard to do one inning every eight days," said Buchholz before Thursday's game. "That's part of it, I guess. It's something I'm going to have to find a way to deal with.
"I've never really been through something like this when it didn't have something to do with health issues. It's a different situation for me.
"There's not a whole lot I can do about it. It wouldn't make me any better or the team any better if I was just to mope around and not be social.
"It's something I'm going to have to deal with. I've dealt with a lot of stuff over the last 10 years. I've found a way to get through that stuff. I don't see this being any different."
Yet it is different, in that Buchholz doesn't know when he'll have the opportunity to display a big league starter's repertoire. His time in the bullpen instead has created a sort of chicken-and-egg conundrum.
On the one hand, he believes he's capable of pitching his way back into a valuable role, preferably as a starter. His 6.14 ERA has not altered his self-image.
"I see myself as a starting pitcher," said Buchholz. "I've gone through some struggles. Everybody's got to find their way through the struggles at some point in time throughout their career."
At the same time, with only sporadic innings of work, he'd be unable to make his case for a return to the rotation. Whereas Roenis Elias built a case for a start with his strong work every five days in Pawtucket, Buchholz entered Thursday night with six innings of work in the prior 20 days.
He has tried to decipher the sources of his struggles, but with limited time on the mound, it's hard to lay the foundation for improvement.
That's the sort of vicious circle that can create despondency, and lead a player to question whether he is in the right organization. Buchholz acknowledged that human nature led him to wonder the same thing, but he quickly shooed away the notion that he might see better opportunities elsewhere.
"I think anybody can ask themselves that question at any point in time," he said. "The only reason I haven't lost sleep over that one thing is that I'm still here.
"There's been a lot of people wanting to run me out of this place for the last seven years. I'm still here and there's a reason behind that. I'm grateful for whoever's job it is to keep me here."
He understands that his ill-defined status is a product of his own struggles.
"If you don't do your job, [the Red Sox have] always been willing to go out and find someone who will," Buchholz said. "I'm eager to get back in there and help any way I can.
"All I can do is go out, try to get better every day, do the work in between — whether it's in the bullpen for me to get up and go in the game, do it to the best of my abilities.
"I just try to forget about everything else. There's not a whole lot else I can do except go out and pitch whenever my name is called."
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.