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BALTIMORE -- Let's see, there are Hank Williams' pain songs, Newbury's train songs, and blue eyes cryin' in the rain. To that list, you can add the mournful chords of the guitar-pickin' pitcher. You learn early in Luckenbach, Texas, and neighboring precincts that nobody's feelings are spared.
Once again, Clay Buchholz has picked himself up, dusted himself off and taken a deep breath through hollowed-out cheeks, preparing himself for yet one more attempt to restart a career that has flown off the tracks more times than he can count.
|Sporting a 7.02 ERA, Clay Buchholz will be back on the mound for the first time in 18 days, making a rehab start in Pawtucket on Friday.|
"You've got to make your breaks when you're on your bad runs," Buchholz said here the other day. "When you're on good runs, all the breaks fall your way.
"That's why this game is tough. There are a lot of people who make this game look easy every day they go out there. Then there are the guys who have made it look easy before, then look like they've lost it. That's sort of my year this year."
On Friday night in Pawtucket, Buchholz will return to the mound for the first time in 18 days. He hasn't pitched since he walked a career-high eight hitters in Atlanta while recording just nine outs, the Braves leaving the pitcher's already brittle ego in scattered pieces across the Turner Field diamond. He also lost seven pounds in the Georgia humidity that day -- all water weight, to be sure -- but still a startling drop for Flacco (the Thin Man), who typically measures weight swings in ounces.
With a helium-filled ERA of 7.02, the decision was made to shut Buchholz down. A knee injury was conveniently detected, and Buchholz was placed on the disabled list. It wouldn't be a year in Buchholz's life without at least one trip to the DL, usually as the result of physical calamity -- a bad shoulder, a stress fracture in his back, bleeding in his gut, a blown-out hamstring, a torn middle fingernail.
Maybe that's why he was so reluctant to make that trip again this go-round. Especially when there was no X-ray, MRI or doctor's exam that could detect what was ailing him.
"Didn't really have a choice," he said. "Figured might as well use it to figure out the things I needed to figure out."
The Red Sox did not leave Buchholz to work these things out alone. Pitching coach Juan Nieves was fully invested, counseling Buchholz through video sessions and side work. Manager John Farrell met with him several times. His fellow starters all came out to watch him throw a simulated game Sunday in Detroit in an impressive show of solidarity.
And in his hour of need, Buchholz also turned to the man he has looked to so many times before when he has faltered. Last week, after finishing a bullpen session in Cleveland, Buchholz came up the clubhouse stairs. Trailing behind him was his father, Skip.
"He's been somebody throughout my career I go to," Buchholz said of his father. "He knows my mechanics and delivery better than anybody because he taught me everything.
"It's not necessarily that he truly understands what it's really like up here, because all they're doing is watching on TV -- thinking, 'Oh, he shouldn't have thrown that pitch' -- but it's good to have someone like him around. He went to Cleveland and Detroit and was home in Boston the last four days. He traveled around, gave his insight. It helped out."
Buchholz thinks he may have learned why he has been so ineffective. There have been some minor mechanical adjustments in his delivery; he said he noticed a big difference in his simulated game Sunday.
"When you're in the middle of a game and the strikes you throw get hit, it's hard to say, 'OK, step back and do less.' You always try to do more when you're struggling," Buchholz said. "That's what I was doing. I was trying to make every pitch perfect. I either was missing with it or missing in the zone, and every time I missed in the zone I was getting hit.
"It was tough to think about it out there when all that stuff is going on. The sim game I threw was a big step in the right direction as far as mechanics and getting feedback from the guys who were hitting. The ball was moving good when I was down in the zone. I haven't been down in the zone all year."
But Buchholz, who turns 30 in two months, knows more than tweaking his mechanics is required of him to become the pitcher he was. Yes, he may have altered his arm slot last season to find a position that would not make his shoulder hurt, and the movement of his pitches may have suffered for it, but it still goes beyond finding a way to thrive in new circumstances.
Buchholz needs his head right too.
"Yeah, it's about confidence," he said. "You've got to be confident and know that the pitch you're going to throw is going to work."
It starts Friday in Pawtucket. No one expects it to end there.
"We know that a fully healthy and performing Clay Buchholz," Farrell said Wednesday, "that's not someone we want performing in Pawtucket."