EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 12, 2009

Buchholz is ready and waiting for shot

Bill Burt

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Physically, Clay Buchholz still looks the same from the last time we met about 10 months ago.

He's tall, about 6-foot-3. He looks like a rail — his biography says 190 pounds, but 180 is probably more like it. And he still looks like a handsome teenager.

What is learned immediately is that his head has changed. Or, at least, abstract stuff that's swirling around inside.

Buchholz, now 24, is pitching for the Boston Red Sox Triple-A affilliate in Pawtucket, a place everybody that knows a stitch about baseball knows he doesn't belong.

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein knows it. Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson knows it. The last place Columbus Clippers know it. And yes, even Buchholz knows it.

Buchholz is now 2-0 with the PawSox with a 1.33 ERA. Even those numbers mask his mastery, which has included 26 strikeouts and only 12 hits allowed over 27 innings.

If not for the Red Sox desire to bring him along slowly — he threw only 86 pitches during a seven-inning, eight-strikeout, one-hit, no-run effort on Friday in Columbus — he might be 4-0.

The record doesn't matter. The logjam in Boston, which apparently is directly related to Buchholz, does.

"I was the reason they got insurance," said Buchholz, referring to additions of starting pitchers Brad Penny and John Smoltz. "I know that. I didn't give them the confidence in me last year. So this is where I'm supposed to be for now. I am not going to complain. I only want to get better."

If those words sound good, but ring hollow, think again.

Buchholz has been the good soldier from Day 1, at least in Pawtucket.

"I can't say enough good things about Clay," said Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson, who immediately grabbed a chart on his desk with Buchholz's name on it. "I'll go back to his first game in Buffalo (on April 12). He only pitched 32รขÑ3 innings and threw 82 pitches. But he threw about 15 or 16 two-strike foul balls. I went out to take him out, thinking he might be a little upset, and he looked at me and said, 'Let's get 'em next time.' That's his mentality. He has a job to do here (in Pawtucket)."

Buchholz says it took awhile getting used to the crowds. Pitching in front of 37,000 isn't the same as pitching in front of 8,000 (on a good night).

"I noticed that the first few times," said Buchholz. "But not anymore. I just focus on what I'm supposed to do and that's make my pitches ... and get better."

Buchholz says that a lot, "get better." Again, it's not the physical side of the game.

"I never really went through adversity in my career before last year," said Buchholz. "It's something I don't want to go through again, or really the way I dealt with it. I fell short of expectations. It's tough when you hear people tell you your stuff is so good. I might have taken it for granted. And I fell short of expectations."

The physical part never has been a problem, even through his struggles.

"Clay's got a plus-fastball, which is about 92 or 93 miles per hour," said Johnson,. "He's got a plus-breaking ball, a plus-slider and a plus-plus-changeup."

In baseball lingo, "plus" is above average at the major league level. "Plus-plus" is, you guessed it, outstanding. So basically, Johnson's got a potential major league All-Star on his roster.

"That changeup he's got ... I wouldn't want to hit it," said Johnson. "He's always had great stuff. But that's not enough. The game is dealing with adversity. If you give up three runs in the first inning, and Tito (Francona) needs you to go five innings, can you get there without having your best stuff? That's what he's here for."

Buchholz's enigma, it seems, may also coincide with his shining moment on Sept. 1, 2007. That was the day, at 22-years-old, threw a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park.

"He bursts on the scene and pitches a no-hitter," said Johnson. "That's not the norm."

Neither is Buchholz's handling the fact that he would probably be pitching in the major leagues if he was on any other of the 29 franchises.

"Is it hard knowing that?" said Buchholz. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't hard. But that's the way it is."

Even the Red Sox wondered about his reaction when they informed him of his assignment in March, despite being second on the team in innings pitched (25) and second in ERA (2.52) among starters on the 40-man roster this spring in Fort Myers.

"Theo asked me if I'd be alright with it," said Buchholz. "They probably didn't think I would. But I told him I'd be fine."

Buchholz says there's another reason he has been able to accept his plight for now. All he has to do is look in the PawSox clubhouse and see several other candidates in the same boat as him.

"Half the guys on this team could play in the big leagues," said Buchholz.

In fact one them is. The Red Sox called up reliever Daniel Bard, whose fastball tops out in the high 90s. Buchholz doesn't have a problem seeing Bard get the ball ahead of him.

"It was only a matter of time," said Buchholz of the Bard callup. "He's lights out. When he comes in to pitch, this place gets electric. He's gotten a whole lot better here. He's going to be a good one."

The same goes for Michael Bowden, whose locker stall is right next to Buchholz's.

"We are good friends, me and Bowden," said Buchholz. "I've talked to him about the majors when he asks. He's got a ton of talent, too. It's going to be fun down the road. There will always be veterans on the team, but you can see Theo's plan, to manicure the entire system, and develop their own players."

Speaking of Epstein, he says that Buchholz performance on and off the field is among the top bright spots in the entire organization.

"He has matured so much in less than a year," said Epstein. "One of the things that helped him was his getting engaged. I think she has settled him down ... All I can say is I'm very proud of him."

Buchholz is slated to pitch against tomorrow morning at 10:30 a.m. in Toledo against the Mud Hens. It's a long way from Fenway Park, literally and figuratively, but for now Toledo is just fine.

"Sure, I'd rather be up the road," said Buchholz. "I'm 24 and still young. And I'm still playing baseball. My time will come. And this time I'll be ready."

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.

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