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For Buchholz, a minor detour

Clay Buchholz accomplished what he wanted to this spring, though he was roughed up a little bit yesterday and will start the season in Pawtucket. Clay Buchholz accomplished what he wanted to this spring, though he was roughed up a little bit yesterday and will start the season in Pawtucket. (charles krupa/Associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / April 1, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Clay Buchholz handed the baseball to his manager, took off his glove, then walked slowly off the mound and into the next phase of his career. There was nothing more he could do.

After his start at City of Palms Park yesterday, the roughest of his remarkable spring, Buchholz met with Terry Francona about his immediate future. As expected, Buchholz will begin the year at Triple A Pawtucket unless Brad Penny is unable to make his start April 12 in Anaheim against the Angels.

Buchholz entered his pivotal spring - the one after his 2-9, 6.75, rookie season; after his demotion to Double A; after his autumn in the Arizona Fall League - with two simplified aims. First, replace fear with confidence on the mound. Second, pitch well enough to make his bosses face a difficult decision about his 2009 starting point.

His ERA no longer makes eyes bulge; it was 0.46 before yesterday's six runs in 5 1/3 innings. But Buchholz fulfilled both of his goals and more. This spring served as a fulcrum for him, turning him from a fragile pitcher back into the presumptive future ace he was before last year's disaster.

He now confronts a trip to the minors the way he faces a bad inning: Things will get better, because he's darn good.

"If I get sent down, then I'm just going to take it as if it was out of my power and they had their mind made up," Buchholz said before his meeting with Francona. "Because I don't think I could have pitched any better than I did pitch, coming into spring training with all the expectations from last year.

"I feel like I did a pretty good job with it coming to this year. I'll still be playing ball. I'll be up in the major leagues sooner or later."

Buchholz, no matter what, will start Sunday in a minor league game here. Penny will pitch his final spring game tomorrow against the Twins. Until the Sox evaluate Penny, Buchholz will wait.

"I've waited two months; a couple more days isn't going to hurt anything," Buchholz said. "If Brad's healthy, he's a great pitcher. He's been in the big leagues for 10 years. He's definitely going to help the club. Hopefully, he goes out and does what he does. If not, I'll be there to back him up."

In his first five starts of the spring, Buchholz pitched like an elite major leaguer. In 19 2/3 innings, he struck out 15 batters and allowed 15 to reach base. He rolled through another two innings yesterday, picking off the only Ray - Ben Zobrist, via a walk - who reached base. He allowed a run in the third when Zobrist tripled off Jacoby Ellsbury's glove, which snapped Buchholz's streak of 12 innings without allowing an earned run.

Buchholz's outing disintegrated in the fourth. Willy Aybar doubled, Matt Joyce blasted a home run, Shawn Riggans doubled, and Gabe Gross blasted a home run. Six pitches, four runs.

"It seems like whenever I do get in trouble," Buchholz said, "something happens in an inning and it sort of rolls up."

Still, when Buchholz sat in front of his locker and evaluated his performance, he said, "I don't think there was anything in particular that was that bad."

The wind pushed Aybar's can of corn to the warning track and made it a double. J.D. Drew broke late for Riggans's.

"If those happened to be caught, it's two outs and it's a different scenario," Buchholz said.

Buchholz never wilted. He threw pitches with conviction. If he fell behind, 2 and 0, he wouldn't throw a changeup for ball three, like last year. He'd throw a fastball and try to induce contact. His two-seam fastball stayed up more and darted across the plate less. That happens, Buchholz said, and it doesn't taint his spring.

"No, I don't think so," Buchholz said. "I can't be that hard on myself. That's how I was back when I was little and growing up. I had one bad game and I thought it was the end of the world.

"If it could be four or five good outings and one bad outing, I'll take it all year, because I believe you're going to have a handful of bad outings throughout the season, anyway."

Buchholz will remember the last month not for its final moments - Gabe Kapler nailing a double to right and Francona emerging from the dugout - but for the dominance that preceded it. Yesterday confirmed what he already knew: He can still improve.

"All the pieces to the puzzle aren't all put in for him," catcher Jason Varitek said. "If they were, I'd say that. And that's a great thing. That's a real commendable thing, to him and his abilities. He's definitively worked hard to get himself back established. I think he's done that."

Said Francona, "I'll tell you what - I think all spring he set out to make decisions hard for us, and I mean that in a good way. He's done a terrific job.

"He's picked up his tempo. He's attacking with his fastball. His changeup is starting to have that old life to it. And he's thrown some good breaking balls. We're really pleased with him."

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com

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