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On the spot

In tonight’s second-half opener against Jays, Sox’ Buchholz finally gets his start

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / July 17, 2009
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TORONTO - In late May and early June, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein began trying to find a major league game for Clay Buchholz to pitch. Buchholz, with his dominance during spring training and at Triple A, proved he had conquered and moved beyond the mess of last season. Buchholz was stuck in Pawtucket owing to circumstance, a minor league pitcher in title only.

During occasional dialogue, Epstein made certain Buchholz knew the organization believed he remained an important part of the franchise’s immediate and long-term future. But Epstein wanted not only to tell him, but to show him.

“Sometimes, actions speak louder than words,’’ Epstein said. “When you have someone who is talented who happens to be stuck in Triple A, sometimes there is a finite period of time where a player can keep his motivation and spirits up.’’

And so tonight, the schedule and roster having aligned at last, and Buchholz will make his one-time-only (for now) return to the major leagues. When the Red Sox begin the symbolic second half of their season against the Toronto Blue Jays, Buchholz will make his first start for the Sox since Aug. 20 of last year, the day before he was demoted to Double A Portland.

“This is an opportunity to let him know he’s still important,’’ Epstein said. “I think it’s a good day for him, to be able to earn his way back to the big leagues. He deserves to be up here. He’s pitched in Triple A this year, but he’s pitched at the level of a very good big league starting pitcher.’’

In the season’s first half with Pawtucket, Buchholz went 7-2 with a 2.36 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), second best in the International League. Buchholz allowed yesterday that he’d be lying to say there has been no frustration in staying in Pawtucket for the first half of the year. By last night, when he ambled into the Rogers Centre visiting clubhouse to dress for a workout, those feelings had melted away.

“It’s been an opportunity I’ve been waiting for all year,’’ Buchholz said. “It’s definitely good to get back up here and get into a big league park. Pitching in Triple A all year, it’s definitely not where I wanted to be. But the things that have gone on in this organization, having the best pitching staff in the league, it’s hard to come out and get a spot start. I’m excited I get to come out here and pitch.’’

The night will be another milestone in a redemptive year. When Buchholz arrived at Double A last fall, he met with Portland pitching coach Mike Cather, one of the people closest to Buchholz in the organization. “My head is spinning around,’’ Cather recalled Buchholz saying. “I didn’t know what was happening. I couldn’t slow the game down.’’

Cather and Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler worked to restore Buchholz’s confidence. After the season concluded, the Red Sox sent Buchholz to the Arizona Fall League, where Cather joined him. Buchholz concentrated on finding the proper tempo on his delivery, and Cather emphasized pitching with his fastball and changeup, not relying on his elite curveball.

In Arizona, Buchholz would throw three or four good outings or bullpen sessions and then revert to his old mistakes. But Cather saw Buchholz transforming. During a bullpen session in Surprise, Ariz., Buchholz threw a pitch and then shook his head. Cather asked if he was unhappy with the execution. Buchholz smiled and said, “No. I haven’t felt this good in a year.’’

Buchholz returned home in the offseason and continued fine-tuning his delivery. When he arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., for spring training, he and Cather talked about their initial meeting in Portland from the early fall.

“He laughed it off,’’ Cather said. “He said, ‘That seems like four years ago.’ He felt like he had come that far.’’

Before his final start of spring training, the only one in which he had trouble, Buchholz carried a 0.46 ERA. He used only his fastball and changeup to mow through orders, his fastball darting with more movement than before. He still had his curveball -- “plus-plus,’’ Cather said - but he proved his approach to pitching had matured.

Buchholz forced the Red Sox into a difficult decision concerning his immediate future at the end of spring training, but he began the year in Pawtucket. “He’s used this time to his advantage,’’ Epstein said. “His mental process is a lot better.’’

Success came at Buchholz like a whirlwind after he threw a no-hitter in his second major league game at the end of 2007. Buchholz has matured since the halcyon beginning to his career. Earlier this season, he became engaged.

“He’s added a lot of stability to his life,’’ Epstein said.

In 2007, Buchholz could hardly sleep for a couple nights before his major league starts. This week, Buchholz said, “has gone just about as smooth as the rest of the year has. I’m ready to go. Go out there, throw strike one, go from there.’’

Asked if Buchholz might be overly excited, manager Terry Francona smiled and said, “Maybe.’’ But he also expressed confidence in Buchholz’s ability to handle the moment. “It’s not his first time here,’’ Francona said.

Buchholz spent yesterday engaging with his teammates, a group he was a part of most of last year and during spring training. “It seems like it’s been forever since I’ve been in the same clubhouse with all these guys,’’ Buchholz said. “I’m real anxious to get out there tomorrow and give it all I got.’’

“We’re talking about a guy who has been there before,’’ Cather said. Still, “he’s going to be amped. He’s going to be coming out of his shoes on his fastball. He’s going to be fired up. He’s wanted this for the last three months, at least. I’m going to enjoy watching it.’’

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com

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