Fearless Buchholz looks for No. 6

May, 1, 2013
5/01/13
11:50
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Clay Buchholz has the type of mild-mannered, soft-spoken personality that can, when things aren’t going well on the mound, come across as timidity or nervousness, even if that’s not the case. When all is well in his game, that same personality can seem to ooze with measured confidence.

[+] EnlargeClay Buchholz
AP Photo/Kathy WillensClay Buchholz tries to become the majors' first six-game winner Wednesday night in Toronto.
After perhaps the best April in franchise history for a starting pitcher, that confidence is off the charts. And that’s what makes the 2013 version of Clay Buchholz so notable. The numbers are amazing, but the demeanor is one of a guy who not only has a mastery of what he is doing on the mound but has no fear of that next back strain or hamstring pull or of unleashing that one curveball that just won’t do the trick.

Buchholz has always possessed a varied arsenal, utilizing as many as six different pitches. This season, virtually all have been effective, and all have been released without any sense of apprehension. That certainty can make all the difference.

“When you get called up, usually you’re going off yourself. You don’t know the leagues. You’re going off what you do well, and this and that,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has caught Buchholz 29 times since joining the team in 2010.

“But the more time you get, the more you know the league, you see how your stuff plays. Clay’s done a great job with not just [saying], ‘Hey this guy’s a really good breaking ball hitter so I’m not going to throw a breaking ball.’ He’ll still throw it. He’ll just make sure he knows that if he makes that pitch he’s gonna make it a good one. He’s done a great job.”

When Buchholz steps to the mound Wednesday in Toronto, where he happens to dominate, he will be aiming to become the first six-game winner in the majors. With a handful of zeroes his ERA will again flirt with sub-1.00 territory. Pitchers across baseball have been posting some pretty impressive numbers this year, but it is no small accomplishment for someone like Buchholz to have such precise command early on.

Buchholz had an 8.69 ERA at the end of April 2012 before posting a 5.60 mark in May, getting hot in June but then hitting the disabled list. In 2011, he was 1-3 with a 5.33 ERA entering May.

“Last couple of years I’ve been a slow starter, so it feels good to be out there and have a little bit of confidence early on, and that helps a lot,” he said after seven strong innings against Houston on Thursday. “Guys are playing well behind me. Things are going right.”

Things have gone right before for Buchholz, but they’ve also gone wrong. A lot of young pitching careers start out like that before a norm is established. Some guys struggle to find the right role, whether it be a starter or a reliever. Injuries early on are not uncommon. Many of those that hit the ground running can burn out by the time they are Buchholz’s age, 28. Buchholz’s ride has been as volatile as any. Throwing a no-hitter in his second career start, spending the bulk of the next year and some of the one after that in the minors, producing a 2010 breakout that saw him nearly win the ERA crown, and then back-to-back seasons in which injuries and ineffectiveness forced his ERA to soar more than a run each year. Then came this -- as smooth a beginning as the franchise has ever seen from a starting pitcher.

The pessimist might see that as just another stretch of the roller coaster. The demeanor, the confidence and the ability to adjust suggests that Buchholz has simply hit that stride.

Single runs allowed early in the win over the Astros forced one such adjustment, this time with Buchholz’s variety of fastball, as he chose to stick mostly with his four-seamer after issues with the sinker.

“Probably not,” he said when asked if he would’ve made that adjustment in years past. “That was one thing that I worked really hard on, was having both fastballs and being able to locate them and pitch off that. It’s a little different not having a two-seam to throw whenever I want. It was tough to get to that point at certain spots, but I was able to find a way to get through a couple of innings.”

The “John Farrell effect” was largely thought to be something that would impact Jon Lester more than anyone. While the lefty was off to an excellent start before back-to-back subpar outings, it is Buchholz who may author the biggest turnaround. Farrell, the pitching coaching in Boston as both hurlers came of age, has recognized the difference in Buchholz now compared to when he tutored him through 2010.

“In a word, more mature,” Farrell said. “And that shows up in a number of different ways. Inside the game, more importantly, where he’s able to slow the game down where maybe things in the past sped up a little bit. But because of that control of that emotional spike that every pitcher will experience, he still reads swings very accurately, and those are the things that allow him to make the next pitch selection to be most effective.
“It’s the maturity and he knowing more of himself as a pitcher, that’s really the biggest difference.”

A slightly deeper look within the numbers emphasizes that point. Buchholz was never a bad pitcher in tight situations, but he was known to focus a bit too much on runners and, at times, was knocked around while in the stretch. However, opponents are 2-for-30 (.067) with seven strikeouts and five GIDPs with a man on first this year. They are 6-for-58 (.103) against Buchholz with runners on. And the righty has held opposing hitters to a .165 (13-for-79) average with 24 strikeouts and no homers in medium- to high-leverage situations.

Again, a small sample size, but everything is trending well. As Buchholz said, things are going right.

Not that the position of one’s locker means everything, but every so often you can read a little into the way in which the Red Sox station their players in the clubhouse. Position players line one wall and pitchers and catchers the other, and within those settings are small idiosyncrasies.

Buchholz, for years, had a locker along the main pitching wall, somewhat behind a pillar and hard to find, betwixt Lester (and Jason Varitek) and lockers for the ever-shuffling relief corps. It was a very ordinary setting.

When the 2013 clubhouse was unveiled, Buchholz had moved to a prominent corner suite once held by Daisuke Matsuzaka and near Josh Beckett’s old stomping grounds, a spot tucked away and central at the same time. A spot where a veteran coming into his own can have his alone time, that he so richly deserves, while still being very present.

In front of the locker, the custom-made lounger with the inscription “Buck” on it speaks to someone who at least had the expectation he would be carrying a bigger load. Thus far, he has.

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