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A reminder why Clay Buchholz might be the Red Sox’ most important player

08.11.12 at 8:30 am ET
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Clay Buchholz proved his worth once again Friday night. (AP)

Remember when people were asking if Clay Buchholz still had options?

There has been perhaps no better reminder regarding the value of patience within a baseball season than what Buchholz has presented this season.

Through his first five starts, nobody in baseball (among qualifying pitchers) had a higher ERA (8.69), with Buchholz having given up the second-most hits (40) while totaling the third-worst batting average against (.331).

Now, after Friday night’s complete game, two-hitter, we have a drastically different picture.

Nobody (again, among qualifying pitchers) in baseball has been better than Buchholz over his last five starts. He has turned in the most innings (39), while managing a 1.15 ERA — which is second only to Tampa Bay’s Matt Moore’s 1.05.

“Well, I believed in him. There were some doubting Thomases out there. I wanted to stick with him,” Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine told reporters after his team’s 3-2 win over Cleveland. “He was throwing without a changeup early in the season, and that May game Josh and he, right before the game, talked about a split-finger changeup after he warmed up and before he went out. He used it in that game and it’s been effective for him since.”

It’s hard to argue that the revamped changeup has been part of the solution.

In that initial five-start stretch, through April, hitters were managing a .438 batting average and .813 OPS against Buchholz’ change, which the pitcher threw 57 times over that period.

In the starter’s last five appearances, he has thrown his changeup 70 times, resulting in a .105 batting average and .263 OPS.

“As far as the changeup goes, it was probably about five starts ago that I started throwing it more, mixed in that little split-change that I’ve been throwing,” he told reporters. “That was more or less for days that my straight change wasn’t there that I could throw that, but as of late, they’ve both been pitching I’ve been using in a game. Getting some good defense behind me in just about every start I run out there, too. It’s fun to pitch whenever you know your team’s going to score you a couple runs. That’s where we’re at.”

Whether it’s because of the revamped pitch, or simply the fact Buchholz has found an extended stretch of health, he has become perhaps the Red Sox’ most important player.

Sure, if the Red Sox are going to fill Valentine’s prophecy of contending for a division they are currently 11 games out of, Buchholz will have to lead the way. (“We want to play as well as we can as often as we can and have the end results be what they are and see where we are. I’m still thinking that this is a division that we want to win,” the manager said before Friday night’s game.) The Sox, for example, have won eight of the last 10 games in which the starter has pitched.

But this season only represents a small percentage of Buchholz’s value, especially considering the team’s current lot in life. Even without the division pipe-dream, the Red Sox find themselves six games out of the loss column when it comes to a wild card berth.

In amidst a roster of questionable contracts, it is Buchholz’ deal that might save the day in some respects. If not for the extension he signed at the outset of the ’11 season, the pitcher would have been a free agent at the conclusion of the ’14 season. Instead, he will be making $12 million in ’15, while riding out club options of $13 million and $13.5 million, respectively, in ’16 and ’17.

That’s $38.5 million for what would have been three years into Buchholz’ existence as a free agent-eligible player. That would be a stretch the Red Sox would otherwise be forced to stretch their payroll in an attempt to solidify the top of the rotation.

But it appears Buchholz will offer the team some much-needed peace of mind while it continues to dance around what may be an uncomfortable payroll situation in the years to come.

There was a reason Toronto general manager Alex Anthopolous identified Buchholz as the player he wanted in exchange for the right for the Red Sox to talk to John Farrell about becoming their manager. In the eyes of other organizations, the soon-to-be 28-year-old (Tuesday is his birthday) is the Red Sox’ most valuable commodity.

Friday night just cemented that.

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