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Buchholz a virtual lock

In reality or fantasy, his slot seems secure

Clay Buchholz worked out hard over the winter. Clay Buchholz worked out hard over the winter. (File/The Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / February 12, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Throw a no-hitter as a rookie, and it could mean the start of a Hall of Fame career, as it did for Christy Mathewson, one of the best there ever was.

It could mean you throw another one a year later, like Steve Busby, and blow out your arm by the age of 26.

It could mean you'll choose dating movie stars over putting your own name in lights, like Bo Belinsky, who never won 10 games in a season the rest of his career but cut a swath through Hollywood.

It could mean you vanish before anyone knows your name, like Bobo Holloman, who threw a no-hitter in his first big-league start - one of only three games he would win in the big leagues, the fewest of any pitcher who threw a no-no.

Clay Buchholz tried all winter to duplicate the no-hitter he threw in his second major league start last September - the first ever in more than a hundred years of Red Sox rookies - and couldn't do it. And he had every advantage he could think of, as he invented a pitcher on a video baseball game and gave him an otherworldly arsenal of pitches. Got close a couple of times - "two outs in the ninth," he said - but sometimes fantasy doesn't trump reality.

"One of the biggest things ever," he said, "is I can't wait to have my name on a video game."

It used to be a young ballplayer longed for his own baseball card. Now, validation comes when he takes out his PlayStation 3 and there's a lifelike digital facsimile of him, bearing his name, ready to come to life at the touch of a joystick.

That will be the easiest of goals for Buchholz, 23, to reach in 2008. His stunning debut last season assures that he'll live in the next wave of games to hit the stores, if he isn't there already.

But the scope of Buchholz's ambition cannot be contained in a game console. That's why he spent two months this winter holed up in a sports training facility in Pensacola, Fla., working out twice a day with another Sox pitching prospect, Michael Bowden, to satisfy the team's demands that his precious right shoulder be stronger come spring.

You do that only when you know you've missed something, which in Buchholz's case was the chance to be with the Sox when they won the World Series last October. While the Sox were splashing in champagne puddles in Colorado, Buchholz said, he already was at the Athletes Performance Institute just outside Pensacola, which is great if you're there to train as a Navy pilot (Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky passed through in World War II) but evidently comes up a bit short in ways to entertain restless young men.

"I must have watched some of the same movies eight times," Buchholz said.

Ever been more bored? "If I have," he said, "I can't think of it right now."

He got to go home for Christmas, but passed, he said, on a chance to come back to Boston for the World Series parade.

"The Red Sox gave me the opportunity to come to API," he said, "and I didn't want to waste that chance. I didn't even make the call."

The Sox will be more protective of Buchholz than the Kansas City Royals were of Busby, who won 22 games in his second season (1974) but averaged more than 260 big-league innings in three seasons between the ages of 23 and 25 and was toast by 26, not long after he'd thrown all 195 pitches of a 12-inning game.

Last season, the Sox shut down Buchholz just south of 150 innings, especially after he mentioned that he felt some shoulder fatigue. Make no mistake: If left up to the kid, Buchholz would have been on the postseason roster, manning a spot in the bullpen or even making a start, once Tim Wakefield went down with his own shoulder miseries.

General manager Theo Epstein did not succumb to the temptation of using a kid who in his short time in Boston made such a powerful impression that Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who called Buchholz's no-no against the Orioles, said Buchholz reminded him of himself.

But now, with Curt Schilling uncertain to pitch this season, the Sox' timetable with Buchholz has been accelerated. Before Schilling's shoulder went Dorian Gray on him, Buchholz might have started the season in Triple A Pawtucket. Now, barring a trade, Buchholz's name almost certainly will be penciled into the rotation in Boston.

"Just to be in the starting five, that's what I want to work for," said Buchholz, employing a term more common to basketball, one of the few sports he didn't play in high school.

At 190 pounds, Buchholz said he is 10 pounds heavier than he was at the end of last season, when he looked like "a stick." The extra weight is well hidden, at least under a T-shirt. The lean frame has changed little.

But the deer-in-the-headlights look on his face in January, when he stood at the podium at the Boston Baseball Writers dinner, blinded by the glare while fumbling through a few words, was nowhere in evidence yesterday morning when he made his first appearance among the early arrivals in camp.

"I don't think I have anything to prove anymore," he said. "I just have to go out and play and throw the way I'm capable of throwing."

But run the way he's capable of running? That, regrettably, is not going to happen here. Buchholz said he raced against a Phillies prospect who was "talking smack" about pitchers, but won't engage Jacoby Ellsbury in a footrace between arguably the two fastest players in the organization. Buchholz was a former sprint champion in high school.

"I've already been told," he said, "that I'll be fined if I race against Ellsbury."

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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