For four months, Clay Buchholz had been asked the same questions. And every time, his answers remained unaltered.
Yes, Buchholz wanted to pitch in the major leagues. Yes, he understood that the line to the Red Sox rotation was long, snaking around so many times that he had no idea whether he would reach one of the coveted front five spots in 2009. Yes, he viewed it as his responsibility to redeem the faith of his organization after a year-long struggle in 2008, and he was willing to remain patient – no matter how long – while trying to do so.
From the time that spring training commenced in mid-February, Buchholz had delivered those well-rehearsed answers time and again. That was the case even as Buchholz left behind completely the disaster of 2008 with a staggering reminder of his gifts this year.
He was positively dominant (2.52 ERA, 19 strikeouts and four walks in 25 innings) in spring training and then even better (4-0, 1.75) for Triple-A Pawtucket. Yet in interviews from the beginning of February through early June, he remained deferential to whatever the Sox had in store for him.
That was not to say he didn’t want to be in the majors. To the contrary, as he told WEEI.com’s D.J. Bean earlier this month, he was more than happy to do anything – including pitching out of the bullpen – that might get him promoted from Triple-A. But the opportunity never arose, and so Buchholz soldiered on without incident. Until this weekend.
In an interview with Mike Giardi of NECN, Buchholz’ armor cracked for the first time. He finally offered the sort of answers for which everyone had been waiting more than 100 days, suggesting that as well as he was pitching, a trade that would get him a big-league opportunity would be welcome.
“I’ve had talks with my agent the last month and a half, two months. There’s nowhere to go. There’s sort of a logjam up there (on the Boston pitching staff),” Buchholz said in the NECN interview. “They’re doing what they feel is right up there for the team to win. Whenever they come to a problem, they seem to find a way to fix it without me being in the picture. It is what it is. It’s frustrating at times. I’m going out and every fifth day here, helping this team, trying to help this team win and trying to get better every time out.
“I feel like I’m more equipped with everything that I have right now as far as the pitches and the mental aspect. I’m physically healthy to be up there and be able to help that team,” the 24-year-old added. “If not that team, then I want be in the big leagues and I do want to go where I’ll be able to play and go and pitch every fifth day.”
Buchholz talked about the limited opportunity that a pitcher has, and the fear that on a single pitch, a career can come to a screeching halt. That being the case, while Buchholz did say in the NECN interview how meaningful it would be to reach the majors as a member of the Red Sox, the pitcher also admitted that he didn’t want to “waste bullets” in the minors while waiting on his opportunity.
For the most part, the Sox sympathize with Buchholz’ sentiments. The pitcher has done everything that he has been asked to do in the minors this year, approaching his craft in completely professional fashion while making an unarguable case that he is ready for the majors.
“He’s handled every situation that’s been thrown at him like a pro,” said Sox farm director Mike Hazen. “He’s worked his butt off down in Triple-A. Those things are facts. And his performance has been unbelievable. He has taken care of every ounce of what he can. He needs to continue to do it. We’re proud of him.”
Hazen said that the pitcher was entitled to feel as if he is ready to graduate from the minors, and that in some respects, it is encouraging to hear Buchholz suggest as much, particularly given how his confidence sank last season. Buchholz has spoken on many occasions about feeling lost in 2008. He went 0-7 with a 9.21 ERA over his last 10 appearances, and felt like he’d earned his demotion for the season’s final weeks.
That being the case, though the Sox placed little stock in a sound bite, the pitcher’s assertiveness about his future and belief in his ability to compete at the major-league level was noteworthy.
“There should be an expectation of the player to feel like he’s ready to go to the big leagues…It’s a positive thing when somebody feels like they’ve put a lot of hard work in and they’re ready to make that leap,” said Hazen. “I think we’re reading into it more that he has that confidence, that swagger, to seize the opportunity when it comes.
“I believe wholeheartedly that Clay Buchholz wants to pitch for the Boston Red Sox,” said Hazen. “I believe wholeheartedly that both (Buchholz and Michael Bowden, who is 3-3 with a 2.48 ERA in Pawtucket) want to be Boston Red Sox and that both of them will be, and that they’ll help us win another World Series. It’s just a matter of the timing of the situation.”
Of course, the timing seems to be showing little improvement for the pitcher. With John Smoltz nearing his return to the majors following his minor-league rehab, Buchholz now has one more pitcher in the Boston rotation that he would need to leapfrog for his opportunity. And so the temptation might arise to imagine that the pitcher is even more distant from the majors now than he was before. Still, Hazen cautioned that it would be wrong-headed to guess about the implications for Buchholz' next shot at the majors.
"Tomorrow the entire landscape could change," said Hazen. "Speculating on timetables is a fool’s errand."
Buchholz was scheduled to start for Pawtucket last night, but his outing ended up being rained out. He was gone before the clubhouse opened to the media following the game.
Because of the number of warm-up pitches Buchholz threw before the game was called, he will wait until at least Wednesday for his next start. The Sox are confident that he will do everything necessary to prepare for that outing, just as he has throughout 2009, in a stretch that has recreated the big visions for his major-league future even as he remains in Triple-A.
“Ultimately, he’s just got to go out and continue to perform every five days,” said Hazen. “He’s held up his end of the bargain. He’s worked hard. We’ve seen nothing affect his five-day routine outside the white lines.
“There’s a degree of, ‘It is what it is,’ from who’s in the current rotation to who could potentially be in the rotation. We come back to what’s controllable in this situation. From everybody’s standpoint, what is controllable is that Clay keeps going out there, working hard, takes care of his business, and trusts that an opportunity is going to emerge.”
D.J. Bean contributed to this story from Pawtucket.