FORT MYERS, Fla. - Maybe people underestimated him because his looks were so incredibly deceiving. Clay Daniel Buchholz, a skinny kid from Lumberton, Texas, looked like a boy, not a man. He was tall and slight with a sleepy-eyed smile and a baseball cap crammed over his ears, and at first glance, when he jogged to the mound at Fenway Park like a lanky young colt, you couldn't help but wonder if he might be in over his head.
"Yeah," he said, grinning in the Red Sox clubhouse shortly before the team departed for Japan. "The country boy coming to the city."
Only that wasn't it at all. Buchholz might have just turned 23 years old when he arrived in the majors last summer, but he lacked neither gumption nor guile. While most of Red Sox Nation (and reporters like myself) were ready to cast him as one of those wholesome teenagers in a G-rated Disney movie, he was out cavorting with models and Penthouse Pets. Naive? Nah. You've got the wrong kid.
His confidence carried over to the baseball field. You cannot pull off what Buchholz did last summer without a certain amount of poise and temerity. On Sept. 1, he stunned the baseball world by hurling a no-hitter in his second career start. He retired the final 11 Baltimore Orioles batters to clinch it, as an anxious Theo Epstein, who had told manager Terry Francona to monitor Buchholz's pitches, looked on.
Overnight, the kid was a local sensation. Suddenly, if you were Buchholzed, it meant someone totally worked you over. He accomplished something many of the greatest pitchers of all time have never done. The attention was immediate, intense, and could have been overwhelming, but young Clay embraced it.
"Oh, he's a lot of fun," reported second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "I enjoyed having him around. He did something amazing last season. It's tough, though. When you're a young guy, and we win a big game, you want to go out and celebrate. But you've got to remember there's 162 games. It's great to have a good game, but you've got to keep improving. You've got to keep doing the things that got you here."
In one of the truly bizarre twists of the 2007 championship season, Buchholz was shut down Sept. 28, just days before the postseason started. The team announced their prized young pitcher had a tired arm and they planned to err on the side of caution by removing the temptation to hand him the ball in the playoffs.
Buchholz was disappointed about the team's decision, but also in himself. Had he adhered to the strength and conditioning program the Red Sox mapped out, he might have been part of the playoffs instead of a spectator.
Earlier this week, Francona revealed he and Epstein met with Buchholz last fall to make a few things clear.
"We had a real heart to heart," Francona said. "We told him exactly what we expected of him, because if we didn't do that, we were wrong. I don't want any more conversations with Clay about not finishing the season."
The conversation wasn't exclusively about baseball. Buchholz had fun, all right - maybe a little too much fun. He isn't the first or the last young major leaguer to fall into that trap. In fact, the list is too lengthy to provide here.
The important component of that experience is to learn from it. Buchholz said Wednesday morning he got the message.
"I'm an employee of the Boston Red Sox," said the affable righthander. "I know they don't want me going out and being seen around town every night. When you go out in Boston, it's easy to have too much fun.
"I saw for myself how it affected some players, how it affects your career if you do too many things wrong. When I get to the third, fourth, fifth day before my start, I like to lay low. I want to make sure I'm ready to pitch."
His exploits with attractive women have landed him in the gossip columns, and, naturally, have not gone unnoticed by his teammates. Buchholz has heard about it, but seems more than equipped to handle it. He has already learned to look past the rumors and the titillating tidbits that can dog any visible athlete in this city.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "Some of the stuff they come up with is just crazy. But it doesn't bother me at all. Actually, it's sort of comical to me."
Buchholz said he has adhered closely to the program pitching coach John Farrell prepared for him. The goal, he said, is to be able to pitch 180-190 innings this season without incident. His shoulder, he said, already feels stronger, and he's eager to test it out in Tokyo.
"We're thrilled with how he's approached spring training," Francona said. "He's done everything we've asked.
"Most guys get to learn all of this at Double A level. But his development got so accelerated because of the no-hitter."
There are no official guarantees - yet - that Buchholz will start the season with the big club, but all indications are he will be part of the starting rotation. The nod in the Japan exhibition was a significant milestone for the kid, who, by the way, is still only 23 - but infinitely wiser.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.