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Mind over batter

Buchholz tries to put adversity far behind him

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 13, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - By the time Clay Buchholz left the field and made it to the clubhouse at Camden Yards in Baltimore, he knew what everyone else knew. He knew that the pitching performances that had weighed on him night after night were not going to keep him in the major leagues.

He knew that something, in his head or in his arm, would have to be fixed. His nadir came Aug. 20, which left his ERA at 6.75, his ERA in his last eight starts in the majors at 9.22, and his mind in tatters. It was the night (or accumulation of nights) that got him sent to Double A, a place from which he would have to rebuild himself.

"I don't think there's any words for it," said the 24-year-old Buchholz. "Never had to really go through any adversity throughout my whole career, my whole life, actually, in baseball. It was different last year, just the first game I really struggled, it sort of snowballed on me. I thought about that one game the next game, and then the next game, the next game."

He couldn't bring himself out of it, though he followed his horrific major league stint with some good outings in the minors. And then, after a season that had stretched on and on from February, just when Buchholz wanted to go home and put down his glove, the Red Sox asked him to go to the Arizona Fall League to work on his mechanics.

But perhaps even more important were the meetings with Bob Tewksbury, sports psychology coach for the Red Sox.

"The mental aspect of pitching is huge for any pitcher, especially for a young pitcher trying to learn his footing in the big leagues, especially when you face the first adversity that, in his case, he's ever faced on the mound," general manager Theo Epstein said. "When we break down players, we categorize every issue as physical, fundamental, or mental, and they're equally important. In his case, he probably had more work to do on the mental side than either fundamentally or physically. It took him a while to come to grips with that, but he was really open-minded, has started that process."

Buchholz worked with Tewksbury on removing negative thoughts during a game, stepping off the mound to take a breath. Instead of thinking about what he's done, he simply needs to make a pitch. Just the next pitch. That's all.

But it wasn't all about his mental approach. There were some physical problems as well. So when Buchholz went to Arizona, he worked with Portland pitching coach Mike Cather to correct a few issues that, with the commitment to following the plans laid out for him by Tewksbury, could help him get back to his glory year of 2007, the year he no-hit the Orioles Sept. 1.

"It was just a rush, basically," Buchholz said. "Whenever my front foot would go to land, it would be like I'm trying to throw really hard before my ground was set. It just messes everything up. We worked on trying to . . . see how easy you can throw hard. That's really the key for me, wait till my foot hits the ground, then I can try to throw hard, rather than doing it prior."

With that new knowledge, and his new set of mental guidelines, Buchholz is attempting to start over. No one will forget about last season. But if he treats this spring training "like this is my first season in baseball," maybe he'll rediscover the talent that caused Nolan Ryan to covet him in the offseason.

Buchholz said he didn't think it was assured he would make the team out of spring training last season, but the coaching staff seemed to differ. ("Last year I think he looked at the situation maybe a little bit more as 'You know what? I'm going to have a spot in this rotation regardless of what happens in spring training,' " pitching coach John Farrell said.)

But no matter. The party line is that Buchholz is assured of nothing this time around. There is no spot in the rotation for him, with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Brad Penny, and Tim Wakefield lined up in front of him and John Smoltz and Michael Bowden on the horizon. That doesn't mean he can't pitch his way onto the team. It just means he'll have to work for it - to prove to everyone that last season's performance was an aberration.

The Sox might believe it, but ultimately, they have to see it. And they have to see he can handle it, Epstein adding, "and keep his confidence."

"[He] has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter for a long time," Epstein said. "He's as talented as any pitcher in this camp, and that's saying a lot.

"I think this year he's got to fight and he knows this and we've talked to him about it and he understands it. He's got to fight for everything he gets. Last year the way spring training evolved, he didn't have a great spring, but he was still handed that fifth spot in the rotation. This year there's just more competition. There's a lot more depth, and he's coming off some adversity for the first time in his career. So he's going to have to earn everything he gets, but I'm also excited to see him do that because he's got incredible potential."

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

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