- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- From a health standpoint, many great athletes in this city have dealt with the what-if tag during their careers.
What if Cam Neely was healthy in the latter part of his career with the Bruins? What if Larry Bird's back held up for the Celtics?
Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz does not want to be this generation's what-if athlete.
The veteran right-hander will take the mound Saturday in his seasonal debut against the Milwaukee Brewers at Fenway Park. His initial role is a bit different than he's used to, as he's currently slotted as the No. 5 starter in Boston's rotation.
As season ago, Buchholz was in the midst of his best season in the majors. He posted a 9-0 record to start the season before suffering a shoulder/neck injury on June 8 and landed on the disabled list. He was limited to only eight more starts and finished with a 12-1 record, including a 1.74 ERA.
This season, the Red Sox are hoping Buchholz can remain healthy and more durable, and that's why manager John Farrell and his staff believe having Buchholz in the fifth spot could be an advantage for both the team and the pitcher.
"When we laid out our rotation each guy is involved in it and the reasons we stated to Clay and let him know where our thoughts were, he understood it," Farrell said. "It gave him a few extra days to build up with the bullpens. This wasn't a matter of an ego saying, 'I should be higher in the rotation.' It was a matter of just making sure physically he was ready to go when the season began. At least through spring training it's agreed with him physically."
Prior to Friday's home opener, Buchholz sat on the couch in the Red Sox clubhouse, wearing a brand new Stetson 10-gallon cowboy hat and playing the guitar. He was relaxed and already preparing for his first start of the 2014 season.
When he takes the mound on Saturday, his goal for the season is a simple one.
"Just health," he said. "If I'm able to run out there every time my turn comes up, I feel like I can give the team a chance to win. That's coming from confidence and knowing my body a little bit better. Hopefully if anything does come up we can head it off a little bit earlier than we have the past couple of years. Every pitcher, every player goes through ups and downs as far as how their bodies feel, and you've just got to know how to deal with it whenever that does come up."
Buchholz also changed his offseason routine in order to better prepare for the grind of the season. He has never reached the 200-inning plateau or made 30 starts in a season during his big league career. While pitchers covet those numbers, he just wants to remain injury-free for the entire season, and if he can do that, the numbers should take care of themselves.
"You saw what he does when he's healthy, and that's the main thing," said Red Sox catcher David Ross. "We expect him to carry some of the load this year with some of those guys throwing a lot of innings last year. He's back healthy and he worked hard this offseason. We expect big things out of him."
During his career, Buchholz has dealt with maintaining strength, which was one of the main reasons he was shut down after throwing a no-hitter in September 2007. He has matured as a pitcher since then but the injury bug always seems to find him. In the past, Buchholz has been sidelined with back and leg issues, but what he experienced last season was something completely different and new.
"I've never felt anything in my arm before, so with that being the first time it was scary not being able to go out and do what I was here to do," Buchholz said. "It was scary when you feel something you've never felt before or know how to deal with it. It was a different experience but I feel like I can be a better judge on my body. Hopefully I won't ever have to go through that ever again." He returned to the rotation on Sept. 10 and made four more regular-season starts before the playoffs began. In the postseason, Buchholz made four starts across the ALDS, ALCS and World Series. His most impressive outing in October was Game 4 of the Fall Classic.
In the days leading up to that start in St. Louis, Buchholz could barely play catch due to continued shoulder issues. Unlike 2007, he would not be denied a World Series start.
He tossed four innings in Game 4 and allowed one run on three hits, with three walks and two strikeouts. It was a gutsy performance and helped the Red Sox to a 4-2 win. He also learned that he didn't have to always try to blow the ball by opposing hitters.
"That was big for me to be able to go out there and see that you don't have to be overpowering to beat good teams," he said. "That was something pretty cool, even though it was only four innings but knowing what type of atmosphere, what the situation was in that game, it helped out a lot."
He'll take that mindset into this season and it begins on Saturday at Fenway Park.
"Your first start of the season, especially at home is pretty cool feeling," Buchholz said. "Given what we're going to be a part of today, as awesome as that is, I won't have to deal with any of it tomorrow so I'll be able to go out there and do my regular routine. It's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to it."
When Buchholz is healthy, there's no denying he's one of the best pitchers in the game. He can do things with a baseball that not many pitchers can in the big leagues.
"His stuff is at the top of [pitchers] that I've been able to work with," Ross said.
Buchholz has been a member of two World Series teams in Boston and wants to win another championship with the Red Sox. The one thing he doesn't ever want is that what-if tag on his career.
"It's Clay Buchholz. He's always had the hype. He's had all that stuff. Now, all he has to do is put it together for a full season," Ross said. "I look for a big year out of him. I think he's going to have a really big year for us, which he should. He's that talented of a pitcher and expectations come high with him."