PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Entering the McCoy Stadium clubhouse it was clear the future was staring you in the face. Jon Lester, the lefthander; Clay Buchholz, the righthander.
A couple of guys who might someday be 1-2 in the Red Sox' rotation. They are at the mercy of the organization's willpower to keep both, rather than using them as chips in a deal for an established, young, veteran starter such as Roy Oswalt, Johan Santana, or Dontrelle Willis.
Who knows how that will go, but for now, Lester and Buchholz are on the same Triple A team, a heartbeat away from the bigs.
The problem is, the future is struggling.
Buchholz, making his Triple A debut last night, unraveled in the second inning after he balked Ottawa's Brennan King to second base. After first baseman Jeff Bailey booted a routine grounder to score King with the first run, Buchholz allowed a long home run to center field by Randy Ruiz.
"Aside from the longest ball I've ever seen hit off me, it was a good experience for me to get out there and face different hitters and see some new faces," Buchholz said. "I felt it was successful as far as going out there, pitching and trying to attack the zone. I got hurt a little bit. I was trying to attack the zone and they hit it."
Buchholz's velocity ranged between 91-94 miles per hour. He started the game with a 94-m.p.h.-heater down the middle of the plate, but Ruiz's home run came on a 92-m.p.h. offering. Wearing No. 23, Buchholz toes the rubber from the far right, allowing him more control on his off-speed pitches. He has a relatively high leg kick, allowing him to hide the ball well. On the second-inning balk, Buchholz failed to step toward first base before making a pick-off throw.
He had a strong first inning, striking out leadoff man Chris Roberson on three pitches, then fanning Jason Jamarillo for the third out. But in the second inning his mechanics changed. A long fly ball for the first out, followed by King's single to right. The balk, the Bailey error, the home run, a liner to right, and another bloop hit to left before he got out of the jam.
He allowed a double in the third, but also fanned two. He ended his three-inning stint with 50 pitches -- 35 for strikes. He allowed five hits and struck out four and didn't factor in the decision in the 6-4 PawSox win.
"Definitely had [butterflies]," Buchholz said. "I get nervous before every start anyways. I was always told that if you don't get nervous before games you shouldn't be playing anymore. There's definitely a little adrenaline rush. I saw a couple of pitches that were up in the zone. I usually don't stay up there. They were a little high because of the rush I had going."
Buchholz said the balk was the second one that's been called on him this season for the same reason.
"When I'm out there I'm really not thinking about stepping," he said. "I'm just trying to get the ball out as quick as possible. When they told me the reason, I wasn't surprised by it."
Buchholz showed an excellent curveball and said his changeup "is a pitch I've been able to throw where I want to." But he said his best pitch is "when I locate my fastball down."
We do not want to overstate the potential magnitude of having pitching prospects of this caliber at Triple A because there are other organizations with this promising situation as well. It's easy to get carried away thinking about the potential of Buchholz and Lester, but until both prove they can cut it at the major league level, they are merely prospects.
In any event, they need to dominate at Triple A before they get to Fenway, and so far, neither has.
Yet Buchholz's arrival was neat for Lester, who understood the significance of sharing the clubhouse with another rising star.
"I don't think we look at it that way," said Lester concerning the possible 1-2 punch of youth and excitement the pitchers have generated. "It's something new and exciting. I guess something to take the attention off everything else that's going on here. I haven't seen [Buchholz] much. I saw him pitch the last game in spring training. From what I hear, he's the real deal. Good kid and good teammate. Let's hope he goes out there and does well."
Buchholz, 22, is much-heralded, not only because of his obvious talents, but because he was the compensation pick for losing Pedro Martínez in free agency.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 195-pounder is expected to pitch again Saturday, though Curt Schilling's rehab start might bump Buchholz back a day. He'll get up to five innings or 75 pitches.
There's talk the Red Sox might restrict Buchholz's innings so he's prepped for possible September bullpen work in Boston. There's no doubt, however, that Buchholz's future is in Boston's rotation. Between now and then, his name will be mentioned in a plethora of trade rumors, although he's already been called once about ignoring the speculation.
Buchholz had last pitched one inning in the All-Star Futures game in San Francisco July 8, allowing a solo home run and striking out two. At Double A Portland he was 6-1 with a 1.54 ERA in his last eight starts. He was 7-2 overall with a 1.77 ERA in 16 starts.
For Lester, the anticipation of returning to Boston seems more intense because he thought he'd be there by now even following his recovery from cancer. Yet he understands why he isn't there now -- he doesn't deserve it.
"Obviously, I want to be up there yesterday," said Lester, 3-5 with a 3.95 ERA. "Pitching-wise I haven't proved that I should be up there. I've been struggling lately. I'm inconsistent. Hopefully, I get the consistency back and get to come up there. If not, then I'll keep pitching and, hopefully, we'll win some games and do well."
Lester insists he's fine physically and his repertoire is intact.
"Everything's working, it's just the inconsistency, " said Lester, who has only pitched beyond the fifth inning in three of 13 starts. "I have an inning or a batter, a pitch or two pitches where it's just not there and then it'll turn back around. It's just been a battle. I thought I put it together one game two starts ago in Rochester. I thought I figured everything out. I struggled again this last start. Hopefully, we can figure it out, put some consistent starts together."
The Red Sox have indicated from the start they are not going to hold Lester back. At the moment he's holding himself back.
"I'm not going lie to you," he said when asked if he's thinking about coming up. "It's in the back of my mind. It's something I try not to think about, but everybody's human. It's a long season. If I can put a couple of starts together . . . but it's whether they feel I'm ready. Really they don't need to [make a decision], they're 10 games ahead and everything's going well for them. They don't need to bring guys up to fill spots for them right now."
Not now. But the future? That's what was easy to see last night at McCoy Stadium.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.