Big start for Clay Buchholz tonight in Chicago


Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox go into Wednesday night’s contest with the Chicago White Sox losers of three straight. Remarkably, the streak represents Boston’s longest skid since 2012. Clay Buchholz takes the mound for the Olde Town Team, and his third start of the 2014 campaign couldn’t be more important.

Let me be clear, I don’t expect the Red Sox to have a starting rotation like the 1971 Orioles. But it’s a talented staff one through five that, with a little bit of health, can be one of the best in the league. Buchholz’s 2013 (12-1, 1.74 ERA in 16 starts) indicates otherworldly ability, but the wispy right-hander has never combined health and consistency into the same 162-game package.

With Mike Napoli‘s dislocated finger hampering an already banged-up offense, Buchholz needs more than a quality start tonight; he needs to dominate and get on track for a big 2014.

Over parts of eight seasons in a Boston uniform, Buchholz has been the real-life manifestation of Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. Sky high. Shallow’s low. Driving a 1971 Chevy pickup off a cliff. Waking up the next morning to Sonny & Cher. A no-hitter in his second Major League start to a train wreck in ’08. Starting ’09 in Triple A to a Cy Young candidate in 2010. Lights-out in 2011 until a string of maladies rendered him ineffective through 2012. His uneven 2013 was a microcosm of the career-long Jekyll and Hyde act: dominant in 16 starts, shelved the rest of the time, and skating on thin ice in the postseason.

It persists. On April 5th against the Brewers, the immortal Wily Peralta was the best pitcher at Fenway as Buchholz got cuffed all over the yard, surrendering 13 hits and six earned runs. He was better his last time out,  stifling the Yankees to two earned runs over six innings, striking out six. His fastball touched 94 mph. But a key Jonathan Herrera error and a lack of run support led to the loss.

Run support has been a problem for the 2014 Sox. With injuries to the starting right fielder, third baseman, second baseman and now first baseman, they’re not allowing their pitchers any breathing room. It’d be nice if a consistent run of quality starts from Buchholz, dialed to 85 percent of the best version of himself, was enough. But tonight, he needs to shut the ChiSox down.

Clay Buchholz’s contract runs through next season, with team options in 2016 and 2017. 2015  is also conveniently the first year he starts making top of the rotation money: $12 million. The option years are set at $13 million and $13.5 million, respectively. With all the young arms in the Boston system, Buchholz has 18 months to show that he deserves to be paid that kind of money by the Red Sox. He might as well start tonight.

If the now 29-year old righty can show consistent velocity, challenge hitters, and most of all stay healthy, the Red Sox have one of the better pitchers in the division on their hands. And while I’m not asking for the part-time Bob Gibson of 2013, I think we’d be more than happy with a guy who can win 14-15 games in the regular season and be there come playoff time. Is that so much to ask?