Buchholz is the Red Sox's longest-tenured pitcher and a key member of the 2013 World Series championship team. But he has twice been removed from the starting rotation in the midst of the worst season of his career. He hasn't pitched since July 2, and wasn't a consideration for a long-relief opportunity Wednesday night with a three-run lead and starter Drew Pomeranz unable to record an out in the fourth inning.
"If we're down 8-3, he's probably the guy," Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Buchholz. "But when you're up 8-5 and with the number of guys that were available last night ... I'll be honest with you: If we're sitting in this situation today, you possibly are asking, 'Why did you use Clay' -- if the game turned the other way -- 'and not use your other guys?'
"He's in a tough spot. I'll be candid: I don't want to say it's purgatory, but as far as baseball goes, he's in a difficult spot."
Indeed, Buchholz (3-9, 5.91 ERA) isn't an obvious fit for any relief role except perhaps mop-up duty. And sooner than later, the Red Sox are going to have to decide whether it's worth using up a roster spot on a pitcher who is so seemingly useless to Farrell and likely has only marginal trade value.
When the week began, it seemed Buchholz might be the odd-man out as soon as Friday, when reliever Junichi Tazawa (right shoulder impingement) is expected to be reinstated from the disabled list. But the injury to fill-in closer Koji Uehara (right pectoral strain) buys Boston more time because just-recalled right-hander Noe Ramirez has options and can easily be sent back to Triple-A Pawtucket.
Right-hander Joe Kelly is getting closer to rejoining the Red Sox after moving to the bullpen in Triple-A. In his last four relief appearances, Kelly hasn't allowed a run while racking up 10 strikeouts in six walk-free innings. When Kelly returns to the big leagues, Farrell said he likely will be used in the multi-inning role that it appears Buchholz is no longer trusted to occupy.
"He's done it before. This isn't a first test run for Joe out of the bullpen," Farrell said. "He simplified his approach, as we talked about going from the stretch. The other, bigger issue is getting him here. It's not like a rehab assignment is expiring. He's on option and putting himself in a position to contribute out of the bullpen."
Kelly's return could force the Red Sox to make a move with Buchholz, who can't be sent to the minors without his consent. He's owed approximately $6 million through the end of the season and has a team option for 2017 that the Red Sox almost certainly won't exercise.
A more immediate concern is figuring out how to keep Buchholz's arm stretched out to make a spot start or for a long relief appearance in a blowout or an extra-inning game. He threw a bullpen session during Wednesday night's game, and although the Red Sox have considered staging a simulated game for Buchholz, they also want to make certain he's available if necessary.
"He finds himself in a spot where he's got to protect for length late in a ballgame if we're in a tied situation," Farrell said. "And fortunately for all of us, we haven't found ourselves being on the downside with early exits from starters."