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Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Updated: February 25, 11:32 AM ET
Will it add up for Clay Buchholz?

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If you think 6 into 5 doesn't compute, Clay Buchholz figures he was faced with an even more unworkable equation last season.

"I came into camp ready to pitch," Buchholz said Wednesday morning, "knowing I had a Hall of Fame guy [John Smoltz] that's competing for the job, that's new coming in, I knew he was probably ahead of me. We had Brad [Penny]. I knew he was in front of me. So I was No. 7, maybe No. 8, on the depth chart.

"So it's a little bit different this year, knowing I have a legitimate shot to win a spot. At the same time, I'm not going to think about it like it's my spot. I still have to win it."

Clay Buchholz
Clay Buchholz attributes his improvement last season to his command of his two-seam fastball.

Buchholz is competing for the No. 5 spot in the Boston Red Sox's rotation with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who had offseason back surgery but says he's fine now. Wakefield said he expects to start, and the Red Sox said they are best served with Wakefield as a starter.

If push comes to shove?

"If something happens and they go a different route," Buchholz said, "I'd rather be in the bullpen in the big leagues than starting in the minors.

"I want to start. That's the way I'm preparing for the season, to be a starter. Since Wake's back and feeling good, you never know. I've seen weirder things happen than that."

Both pitchers have birthdays this August. Wakefield turns 44, Buchholz 26.

There were only four starting pitchers in the big leagues who were Wakefield's age or older last season. That number is down to two, at least for the time being, as Randy Johnson retired and Smoltz remains unsigned and may also retire. Jamie Moyer, 47, is in a similar situation as Wakefield, competing with a much younger pitcher, Kyle Kendrick, for the No. 5 spot in the Philadelphia Phillies' rotation.

Did it ever occur to Buchholz to suggest that Wakefield take up a more age-appropriate activity, like playing Wiffle ball in the backyard with the kids?

"That's definitely not my spot to say to him," Buchholz said, dismissing the frivolous thought. "The guy's been around the game a long time. He's got a lot of good knowledge, had an All-Star year last year. Who am I to say anything to him?"

Wakefield did have something to say to Buchholz, according to the younger pitcher. Wakefield shared his own experience of having had great success in his big league debut -- Wakefield was a rookie sensation with the Pittsburgh Pirates, nearly pitching them to the National League pennant -- then struggling badly for a couple of years thereafter, finally getting released by the Pirates before he was signed by the Sox and resurrected his career.

Don't be overwhelmed by setbacks early in your career, Wakefield advised him, a lesson Buchholz also heard from Smoltz. Give yourself time.

Buchholz, of course, threw a no-hitter in his second big league start in 2007, made the '08 opening day roster out of camp, then unraveled, going 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA. The year ended horrifically, as he went 0-7 with a 9.21 ERA in one stretch before winding up being sent to Double-A Portland.

Then Smoltz and Penny arrived last spring, and Buchholz was back in the minors. Wakefield's injury opened the door for Buchholz's return, and he made the promotion stick, going 7-4 with a 4.21 ERA in 16 starts. He was lit up in his final two regular-season starts, but had cemented a place in the playoff rotation with a stretch of six starts in which he went 5-0 with a 1.32 ERA, while holding opposing hitters to a .185 batting average.

He also had the highest ground ball-to-fly ball ratio among Sox starters, 1.15, while his ratio of extra-base hits (6.8 percent) was the lowest. Those numbers bear testament to his increasing reliance on, and mastery of, the two-seam fastball, or sinker.

"Whenever I'd go 3-and-1 or a full count," Buchholz said, "instead of throwing a four-seamer, missing a spot and being middle, and getting hit, I can throw a two-seamer that has a little movement. Even if I miss middle, it's still diving to the inner half of the plate to right-handed batters. That's how I got out of a lot of trouble, by just trusting that pitch.

"Maybe I wasn't throwing to the exact spot I wanted, but I'd still have movement and miss the barrel of the bat. It probably was 70-30, two-seamers to four-seamers, last year."

It was a pitch he barely used when he first got to the Red Sox. "I never really fooled around with it," he said. "Then in my first big league camp, Tek [Jason Varitek] started calling it so I started throwing it, and it got better."

The odd thing was, when Buchholz went back to the minors, the pitch showed little of the action that made it effective in the big leagues. "Weird," Buchholz said. "I think it might have been the difference in the minor league balls. I sort of lost confidence in the pitch, but when I got called.back up and started throwing two-seamers again, it was back. I don't know, maybe it was the atmosphere of being back in the big leagues and I was more amped up, but it was really awkward."

Josh Beckett has worked with Buchholz on his grip for the two-seamer that Beckett throws inside to left-handed hitters. "I've gotten decent," Buchholz said, "but it's a hard pitch to throw. It's all a matter of how comfortable it feels."

From a procedural standpoint, the Sox have an out with Buchholz. He has one option left, meaning the team can send him back to the minors without exposing him to waivers and the chance another team would claim him.

But from a developmental standpoint, there would seem little to be gained from Buchholz returning to the minors. He is often mentioned as a potential trading chip, but now that he is showing durability, throwing just a fraction under 200 innings last season, he may well be too valuable right where he is.

In the meantime, he is working on establishing a rhythm, refining his command, and trying to ignore a certain math problem.

"It is what it is," Buchholz said. "I'm just going to go about my business, try to have a good spring, build off how last year ended, and go with that."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.