Game 3 could be a defining moment for Boston starter Clay Buchholz, who will seek to solidify his own reputation and take his team to the next round of the playoffs.
There's no denying the 29-year-old right-hander is a talented pitcher. A 2005 first-round draft pick, he has accumulated a 58-33 regular-season record over seven seasons, while posting a 3.60 ERA and flashing ace potential. Unfortunately, he has also frustrated with inconsistency and regular injuries.
Buchholz arrived in Boston with a bang, throwing a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles in his second major league start in 2007. However, he couldn't use that impressive outing as a springboard, shuttling between Boston, the minors and the disabled list over the following two seasons.
He showed his ability to be a top-of-the-rotation type of starter in 2010 when he went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA in 28 starts, his first full year in the majors. That season created expectations he has been chasing ever since.
Just after the 2011 season started, Buchholz signed a long-term extension with Boston that has club options that could keep him at the Fens until 2017. Instead of building off his financial security, Buchholz suffered a fractured back and only made 14 starts that year.
Along with most of the other players on the team, Buchholz struggled last year, going 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA while making a career-high 29 starts.
He seemed to have put that all behind him, as he jumped out to a perfect 9-0 start this season. But once again, he was unable to sustain any momentum, going on the disabled list in June with a neck injury and missing the next three months.
When Buchholz pitched his last game before going on the disabled list, the Red Sox were 38-25. From then until when he returned on September 10, the team was 49-33, showing it could do just fine without him.
He finished out the season strong, finishing with a 12-1 record and 1.74 ERA in 16 starts. He will now be tasked with closing out a tough Tampa Bay team, which could steer his career in a new direction.
Only teammates David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester have been in Boston longer than Buchholz. A big difference is that they are all battle-tested playoff veterans who have established much more solid reputations.
Buchholz has just one previous playoff game under his belt; pitching Game 3 of the 2009 ALDS against the Los Angeles Angels. He lasted five innings in a no-decision that was ultimately won by the Angels to complete the series sweep.
Buchholz has talent; lots of it. He just needs to find consistency and establish himself as more than a tease.
The game against the Rays should be a great opportunity. Buchholz is finally healthy and going against one the teams he has handled with the most ease throughout his career. In 16 previous starts against Tampa, he has gone 7-5 with a 2.41 ERA, while allowing just 74 hits in 101 innings. This includes a 2.26 ERA in Tampa, where he will toe the rubber in Game 3.
Nobody knows what the future will hold, but Buchholz could conceivably be in Boston for at least another four seasons beyond this year. While he has had his share of moments, he hasn't had enough to gain the full respect and appreciation of fans -- like other team leaders. A major step for him would be shutting down the Rays, taking Boston to the next round of the playoffs and building off that huge accomplishment.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.
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