How many times can a fan base be let down before they’re allowed to give up? Sometimes it takes a while for it to “click” for a player, but sometimes it never actually does. Dave McCullough examines the history of Killer Clay Buchholz as the Red Sox starter is once again on Boston fans’ good side.
It has been a familiar sight – and pattern – to Red Sox fans for the past decade: It starts in the spring, then stretches into summer nights. On paper, his starts appear to be a clear advantage: A sunshine-filled picture of idyllic, pastoral pleasantry on a warm summer’s eve. He features some of the best stuff in the game. There’s a tempting start or twelve: maybe run-of-the-mill good, maybe an unhittable glimpse of the tantalizing talent beneath the surface. For a while, he’ll be dominating like an ace, shutting down the opposition with ease.
Despite what was on the paper, or the great early innings, or the unbelievable half-seasons of dominance – that itchy, foreboding feeling never really leaves us. We’ve been through it too many times – this movie has a genre, and we, the audience, know it all too well. No matter how the first act plays out, he’s going to disappear. The killer is going to escape frame, seem like he’s dead, only to reappear with a grievous injury or be so bad we wish he were dead, but either way – it’s gonna be gruesome. That’s how it always works.
It’s always buried in the back of our minds – ever-present. We know it is coming, and know there is no escape for us. Unlike Doctor David and Mister Price, this good-bad yo-yo isn’t some mid-inning, mid-start thing: This is the Killer Clay, the Bad Buchholz, who either disappeared so thoroughly he could have won multiple Hide & Go Seek championships had he been eligible, or went on a murderous rampage of ERA inflation and lead mutilation. Killer Clay slowly bleeds fans, harvesting their loyalty and perseverance as a vampire feeds on blood.
Early in 2016, Killer Clay seemed like he’d taken over full-time residence, terrorizing Red Sox fans with every successive horrific performance on the mound. It seemed like he had – after so many years of teasing us with the inevitable decline – actually devolved into a useless pitcher. Having seen parts of this act before, most of Buchholz’s repeat victims – I mean, long time fans – sighed theatrically and asked if they really needed to suffer through another uninspired sequel. Perhaps Eduardo Rodriguez could return a bit earlier than anticipated from his injury? Maybe Joe Kelly, the equally enigmatic hurler with golden stuff was ready to blossom? Perhaps Roenis Elias or Sean O’Sullivan could hold the fort? Hey… this Pomeranz guy can surely do the job, eh?
After a string of atrocious performances he was banished to the bullpen in late May, and as Buchholz left the rotation, fans thought this time he really was dead. But the lanky righthander bided his time just off-screen as Boston’s mix of large fathers, precocious kids, and grizzled counselors battled for playoff positioning through the dog days of summer. Despite some public statements about being less than enthusiastic about his new role, he persevered behind the scenes.
To his credit, he kept working offscreen, too. Buchholz constructively spent his downtime watching his old self on video: the relentless killer from earlier seasons who hacked down hitters with devastating offspeed offerings and well-placed fastballs. Together with organizational counselor (and former big league pitcher) Brian Bannister, Buchholz rediscovered his killer form; moving his release point up and taking a more aggressive approach, the new Clay Buchholz was once again slicing and dicing the competition. He was back – just when fans thought he was dead, he came roaring back to life.
This late summer resurgence of Killer Buchholz has been a pleasant surprise to most Boston fans. Can they be blamed for giving up on him and completely writing him off three months ago? He was – yet again – all but dead. His act stunk, and worse than that – his act was old. Fans had seen it thousand times: nibbling at the edges, not hitting his spots, outdueled a couple times by a tenacious opponent, and blam! Sad Clay was unleashed, stomping uncomfortably around the mound as if being torn apart internally by viscous forces scratching their way out from the inside. (OK, squirrels. We’re saying he’s possessed by demonic squirrels.)
Since July 27, Buchholz has been chewing up the opposition: allowing just five runs over 22 innings, walking six while striking out fifteen. In addition to small sample size stats since his return, first in the pen and now the rotation, show a pitcher executing with more authority than early in the season, almost like he’s got his thirst for killing back and is enjoying being out on the mound again. Whether it was video work, consultations with Bannister, the exile to the bullpen, or something supernatural – like demonic squirrels – something changed for Killer Clay and he’s back to slaying the opposition.
Yet again, the audience – we, the fans – had been fooled many times before into thinking Killer Clay was dead, only for him to come roaring back to life in the final frames. How many times has he pulled this trick on us? Six? Seven?
Like any good horror movie protagonist, he’s never dead when we think he is. Remember, horror movies have rules and once again he will go on a spree, mowing down the opposition – fully aware that it’s gonna end again soon. Before too long he’ll disappear again, waiting, biding his time for yet another explosion of Killer Clay – when you least expect it.
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