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Feats of Clay

Buchholz gets the call as Red Sox Nation greets a new phenom

Clay Buchholz not only has a fastball that can reach 92-94 miles per hour but also a devastating repertoire of offspeed pitches. Clay Buchholz not only has a fastball that can reach 92-94 miles per hour but also a devastating repertoire of offspeed pitches. (JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES)

It was a 2006 Ford Expedition, with an in-dash navigation system, that caused Bubba Bell to acquire an impish sparkle in his eyes. He had a rooting interest in the success of Clay Buchholz in more ways than one.

In a conversation eight days ago, Bell said he couldn't wait for Sept. 1. That was the day, he believed, when Buchholz would make the drive up I-95 North, to his Fenway Park future.

"I'm his biggest fan," said Bell of the pitcher with whom he roomed in the offseason in Dallas. "Keep rooting for him and try to make sure that he gets called up. If I get a little bonus in the end, that's fine with me, too. But it's all about him getting to the big leagues."

Sure it is.

There was also the small matter of a wager they had going. If Buchholz got called to Boston, the two would trade vehicles, Buchholz's Expedition for Bell's 2001 Chevy Z71 truck. Sept. 1, when major league rosters expand from 25 to 40, was the target date. But Bell miscalculated. He underestimated Buchholz, if that's possible regarding someone who has outlandish expectations, hopes and wants and needs placed at his feet -- or rather, on his right arm. Sept. 1 is two weeks away. And the call-up, the day that has been breathlessly awaited by nearly everyone in Boston, has already come. Buchholz has been promoted to the Red Sox and will start this afternoon's opener of a day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Angels at Fenway.

The bet, on its face, seems to demonstrate more than a bit of confidence on the part of Buchholz. It's a self-assurance that comes with having a golden right arm, a can't-miss label, and an assignment to start for a major league team just three days after his 23d birthday. But in an unguarded moment, in a wondering tone, Buchholz reveals a bit of himself normally concealed by his Texas swagger and other people's dreams.

"It's sort of amazing right now," Buchholz said, tucked into a Cheesecake Factory booth in late July. "The whole [pitching against Roger] Clemens thing that I got to do [while with the Red Sox' Double A Portland affiliate when Clemens was on a minor league rehab assignment]. I definitely watched him all through growing up. Being this close to breaking into the big leagues . . ."

His voice trailed off. "I don't know," he continued. "I don't even know the feeling right now. It's sort of . . . I'm still in awe about it."

All the tools
So, at times, are those who marvel at his pitching. It's rare to find a young pitcher with a stellar fastball -- 92-94 miles per hour -- who also has a repertoire of offspeed pitches.

"You're talking about a guy that's got a plus major league fastball, an average to plus major league two-seam, a plus changeup, plus curveball, plus slider," said Mike Cather, the pitching coach at Portland, who also worked with Buchholz at Single A Wilmington last season. "He has the whole package."

It's a package that includes athleticism along with his pitching prowess. Buchholz reports he once ran a 4.2-second 40-yard dash, indicating that while he might lose a footrace to Jacoby Ellsbury, it wouldn't be by much.

As Jeff Livin, his coach at Angelina (Junior) College, put it, "The kid could run like a scalded jackrabbit."

But once Buchholz gave up his shortstop dreams (he was initially scouted at that position) and eschewed football scholarship offers (from Purdue and Notre Dame, after one season of high school ball), the athleticism meant little.

Or at least not as much as his changeup. In the plan drawn up for Buchholz before this season, the idea was to improve his command of the pitch and increase its use in games. Check.

"I can throw it any time I want to throw it," Buchholz said. Or, as Cather said, "Now that pitch, he's throwing it 2-1, he's throwing it 2-0. He's throwing it 3-1. He'll throw it 3-2. He loves the pitch. The thing about it is, he's looking at probably 14- to 15-miles-an-hour separation off his fastball with the same arm speed and intensity."

Even with all the hype and all the praise and all the accolades, there remain facets of his game that are not polished. But it's more a matter of improving those last few bits, those last key pieces, than wholesale development.

Like that two-seamer. While it boasts "explosive action," according to Cather, Buchholz has used it fewer than a dozen times all season. And his fastball, as both Buchholz and opposing hitters readily acknowledge, needs to be kept down.

If it isn't, it can travel a long way, as Ottawa's Randy Ruiz demonstrated when he sent a fastball 400 feet in Buchholz's first game at Triple A.

After he posted a 1.77 ERA in 15 starts (86 2/3 innings) with Portland, giving up just four home runs, Buchholz allowed five homers in 30 1/3 innings with Pawtucket. He had a 3.26 ERA with the PawSox -- and 48 strikeouts.

The strikeouts. There's a question about them, too. Like many young pitchers, Buchholz is still learning to harness his desire for the flash. And he knows it.

"I even find myself pitching away from contact sometimes," he said. "If I have a strike on a batter and I want to get a strikeout, I'll try to throw a pitch to where he can't hit it rather than let him hit a pitch. That's what gets your pitch count up and that's what drives you out of the game."

A lifelong goal
Reached yesterday morning at the airport in Houston, an hour before his plane left for Boston, Skip Buchholz offered only a few words. "Been waiting on this for 23 years," he said, pride permeating his Texas twang.

It was his dream, too. From the time Clay, his eldest son, was born, Skip Buchholz had plans. Even when he looked at a skinny 7-year-old, allergic to just about everything -- "ketchup, eggs, chocolate milk, grass, dirt," Skip rattled off -- the father simply knew. Knew and, as a former small-college player, wanted to help.

"A dad lives through his son," he said Monday. "And that's not a good thing sometimes. Sometimes a kid comes along and runs with it. He lives, eats, and breathes it. Standing there with two gloves and a ball when you get home."

Raised to be a shortstop, Buchholz took 200 ground balls every day. His mother, Robin, would be at first base, Skip at home plate. Skip would hit balls to Clay's glove hand. Back hand. Liners. Bouncers. Those are the moments Skip remembers. One in particular: when Clay was 10, wringing wet, on a Little League field.

Skip looked up. "I said, 'Do y'all notice anything funny about where we're at? What's odd about us being out here?' "

No one else was there. Seven or eight fields were empty. Except theirs.

"My dad was always like a diehard," Buchholz said. "He was my coach growing up all the way through high school. He pounded it in me. Like, 'If you're going to play, you're going to play right and you're going to play hard. This is what you're going to school for.' He was hard on me growing up as far as baseball and academics even."

Skip keeps his computer to himself, not wanting anyone else around while he watches his son pitch -- "They mess up my karma," he said -- but father and son reach out to one another the night before the game. And in the moments after.

The night before his son pitches, Skip calls. As soon as Clay retreats to the clubhouse after a start, he calls his father.

Tough calls
There have been other phone calls, less pleasant. Two of them, on March 31 in consecutive years. Skip dialed his son each time and asked one thing, then made a promise. "You stay home," he told Clay. "I'll keep my job."

Things had fallen apart on both occasions. Clay Buchholz was arrested for stealing computers from a middle school in 2004. One year later, his father was laid off after 18 years at the mill.

"It was tough," Skip said of his son's arrest. "It wasn't just tough for him. It was tough for all of us. He broke a lot of hearts that night."

Skip had known something was wrong. When he approached his son one day to find out the trouble, Clay broke down in tears. He wouldn't explain. He couldn't.

Soon after, he was arrested.

"I knew it was coming before it even happened, because everybody knew," Clay said. "Everybody knew what was going on. I don't know. That's all sort of a blur.

"I don't really remember that much of it. I do remember that I don't ever want to go to jail because I saw what that was like. Not being in prison, but being really close to having to serve some time, it was just a life-changing experience."

Though all involved insist it was an isolated incident -- one Buchholz attributes to hanging out with a high school classmate his freshman year at McNeese State, where he went before transferring to Angelina -- it dropped his stock enough that he was available at No. 42, in the sandwich portion of the first round.

The Red Sox, reassured by his stuff and his athletic ability and a meeting at which Buchholz explained his side of the story, took the chance.

What's in store?
It was time to go. The waitress had cleared the remnants of the Cheesecake Factory's chicken and biscuits, and the check was on its way.

Buchholz's cellphone had been ringing, loudly, off and on. His temporary roommate, Zach Borowiak, had locked himself out of their apartment. And Ellsbury was nowhere to be found.

Buchholz and Ellsbury room together, in an apartment by the Providence Place Mall. (Good, and bad, for a self-confessed Apple addict, who says of his trips to Best Buy, "I want to buy the store.") They represent a grand future for the Red Sox. They excite the fans, quicken their pulse, with promise that seems boundless.

But Buchholz is barely past college age, and while he usually sounds older, there are times when he pauses to ponder his future.

"The confidence you have in college, if you're a dominant player, hitter, or pitcher, you're confident everywhere you go," he said. "You get drafted and your confidence goes down, you're like, 'All these guys are really good, too. So I might not be that good.' You start second-guessing your stuff. That's when you get in trouble. That was the biggest change for me. At times I would second-guess my stuff instead of throwing it. That's when I got hurt."

At some point last season, Buchholz vowed to forget all that. To put an end to the doubts. To just throw. That's what has gotten him to this point. To the moment he and his family (and Bell) have been awaiting. To the moment that justifies all those ground balls, all those afternoons, all that work.

His life will change, in ways he hasn't yet imagined. He's still anonymous, as the Cheesecake Factory waitress made clear when she brought the receipt.

"Mr. Benjamin," she guessed, placing it in front of him.

She doesn't know who he is. Or, if she knows the name, she can't identify the lean, hawkish face.

She might be able to soon. Because today, at 1:05 p.m., when Buchholz takes the mound at Fenway for the first time as a member of the Red Sox, she -- and millions of others -- will make his acquaintance.

Red Sox Nation, meet Clay Buchholz.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, this story on Clay Buchholz and the Pawtucket Red Sox listed the wrong team for Bubba Bell. Bell plays for the Portland Sea Dogs.

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