Over the past seventeen years, I’ve watched dozens of games amidst the smell of hot dogs, the sound of vendors yelling “Crackah Jax heah,” and the sight of the boys in white and red playing ball at Fenway Park. I’ve kept a few tickets from memorable games, such as Game 6 of the 2007 ALCS, and Schilling’s 200th win. But there’s only one ticket that remains prominently lodged into the corner of my framed panorama photo of Fenway. On September 1, 2007, a lanky rookie with a funny name no-hit the Baltimore Orioles, using his mid-90s fastball and nasty curve to near perfection. His name was Clay Buchholz. The collective reaction of Red Sox fans at the time: wait, who?
Seven years later, Clay Buchholz is a household name in Red Sox Nation. He did not become the heir apparent to Billy Rohr, another Red Sox rookie with an “h” in the middle of his name who came within an out of a no-hitter in 1967, but never panned out as a Major League pitcher. As a two-time All-Star with a claim to the title of Best Pitcher in the World for two months of the 2013 season, Buchholz’ brilliance extends beyond that one magical night in September 2007. And yet, Clay’s career has frustratingly adhered to Newton’s third law of motion: with every act of greatness, there has been an equal and opposite reaction of incompetence.
Moreso than any pitcher of the past two decades, the mercurial Buchholz has won both the admiration and ire of Sox fans. Let’s take a quick ride along the ERA rollercoaster of Clay’s career, starting with the 2009 season: 4.21, 2.33, 3.48, 4.56, way down to 1.74 last season, and way up to 5.40 this season. For a pitcher with Cy Young talent, who finished sixth in voting in 2010 and was the favorite before getting injured in 2013, why has he been so frustratingly inconsistent?
Justifiably so, his mental toughness has been questioned relentlessly over the past couple of seasons. While on the DL last year, Clay remarked that while he didn’t see any risk in coming back in July; he wasn’t comfortable pitching with a little discomfort “because I’ve never had to do it before.” Adam Kaufman of Boston.com appropriately reamed Buchholz out for these comments as demonstrative of his lack of competitive fortitude. According to Tim Britton of the Providence Journal, when Buchholz began June 2014 with a 7.02 ERA, more than five points higher than his ERA in June 2013, John Farrell noted that his struggles were not physical. Farrell remarked, “To me, it’s as much mental and fundamental.”
Clay’s three-hit shutout on Sunday, almost seven years to the date of his no-hitter, reminded us that he still has the ability to pitch like the guy we hoped he would become on that early September night in 2007. Sunday’s start even surpassed the no-hitter in one notable way: Buchholz didn’t walk a single batter, while he walked three in that no-hitter. It was Buchholz’s second walkless, three-hit shutout of the 2014 season, as he also pitched a 12-strikeout gem on July 13. Buchholz has also carried a shutout into the ninth inning in two straight starts—he fell apart slightly in the previous start and loaded the bases, after which Koji Uehara allowed all three inherited runners to score.
Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs for Buchholz, the elder statesman on a young and unproven Red Sox pitching staff. Given the peanut brittle nature of his confidence, Clay will never be the ace of a rotation. After Sunday’s start, per the Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham, Clay remarked, “You don’t always go out there with four or five pitches working. Whenever you do you’ve got to make the best of it.” That’s not humility; that’s his ingrained sense of self-doubt. Like the unforgettable quarterback Matt Saracen from Friday Night Lights, Clay is haunted by mental demons and may never fully exorcise them. But unless both Jon Lester and Cole Hamels are walking through that door, Buchholz needs to figure out a way to do so. The Dillon Panthers wouldn’t have won State if Saracen didn’t step up, and the Red Sox can’t return to the playoffs next year without a more consistent Buchholz.
Having seen Clay throw that no-hitter in person, I’ll admit that I have more patience with him than I objectively should. But Sunday’s start was objectively brilliant, and his talent continues to justify more opportunities. Clay needs to build off this late-season success and have a huge year in 2015, the final season of his contract and last chance to prove that he’s more than an occasional flash-in-the-pan. He’s accomplished more than a one-hit wonder like Billy Rohr, but that 2007 no-hitter remains the shining accomplishment of his career. With Buchholz’s talent, that no-hitter should merely have been the foreword to a storybook career. Let’s hope he hurries up and writes the rest of that story.