Clay Buchholz gets first career Opening Day start for Boston Red Sox

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Clay Buchholz is the longest tenured pitcher in the Boston Red Sox rotation, but this year will mark his first as the Opening Day starter. For years, Buchholz has been content to blend into the background behind his more esteemed teammates, but he’ll no longer have that luxury. Even if it’s by default, the 30-year old Texan is now being counted on to be the leader of the staff.

The Red Sox have received a lot of criticism for assembling a rotation that seems to lack a front-line starter. While none of the names on this staff jump out at you as a proverbial ace, that is hardly a reason to expect it to be a disaster.

This year is reminiscent of the 2013 season, when Boston was also coming off a disappointing last place season. That team opened the year with a rotation that included Buchholz, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront, who combined for a collective 4.42 ERA in 2012. On paper, that rotation wasn’t any more impressive than the current Red Sox rotation, which has a collective career ERA of 4.05.

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Lester was the ace of that staff, but he was coming off a season in which he posted the only losing record of his career, along with a brutal 4.82 ERA. Most would now consider Lester to be among the elite pitchers in the game, after his brilliant 2013 postseason was followed by a career year in 2014. That wasn’t the case heading into the 2013 season.

Sure, Lester had a previous track record of being a great pitcher, but so does each of the starters in Boston’s current rotation. In fact, if all five of the Red Sox starters even approach their career-best seasons, Boston may have the best rotation in the league. That’s unlikely to happen, but just as several Red Sox pitchers rebounded with improved performances in 2013, this group is just as unlikely to have each of them struggle as much as last year.

Recent history bias has convinced many of us that Lester has always been a Cy Young contender, but prior to last year’s career year, he carried a career 3.76 ERA. Is it really unfathomable to believe that at least one of the starters in this rotation can post an ERA in that range?

Buchholz is a two-time All-Star and has a 3.67 ERA since the start of 2010. That’s 11th best in the AL among pitchers with at least 700 innings pitched over that span.

The physical talent Buchholz possesses is undeniable. He throws a mid-90’s fastball that he can compliment with a curveball, cutter, slider, splitter, or a two-seam sinking fastball. That’s an impressive arsenal at his command, and his stuff is among the best in baseball when he’s at the top of his game.

Injuries have held Buchholz back throughout his career, as has his questionable desire to consistently take his game to the next level. Former teammate Curt Schilling, now an ESPN analyst, openly questioned Buchholz’s commitment last week.

"“Clay is just kind of, ‘Hey, I’m going to pitch today.’ He’s unbelievably talented, obviously physically,” said Schilling during an ESPN broadcast. “But there’s another level to the game, and I think that’s the reason he’s been inconsistent. I think it’s all above his shoulders.”"

Now that Buchholz is leading the rotation, the Red Sox need him to have his head on straight. He claims that his critics don’t bother him, but he certainly hears them. Each member of this rotation is taking the criticism that they lack a true ace personally, and it’s something they can all use as motivation.

Heading into the 2013 season, there was little reason to have confidence in Boston’s rotation based on how they performed the previous year, yet that team went on to win a World Series. Some changes had to be made to that rotation along the way, while it took bounce back years from several pitchers, but there’s no reason to think this year’s staff can’t pull off a similar turn around.

Boston’s rotation may not be impressing many people now, but that could all change a year from now if the pitchers on this staff play up to their potential. That’s particularly true for Buchholz. He’ll have the ball handed to him on Opening Day for the first time. Now it’s up to him to go out and prove he’s worthy of leading this rotation.

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