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Molding of Clay advances

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / January 21, 2011

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So now the real journey is about to begin for Clay Buchholz.

This is the first season of the rest of his career. From here on, he begins to answer the question, “Is he an elite starting pitcher?’’

His numbers last season shouted yes, but he brings up the point himself: “I’ve only done it one year. I’ve got to show consistency year after year that I’m going to be someone the team can count on every time I go out there.’’

That is what separates the Felix Hernandezes and Roy Halladays and CC Sabathias. Buchholz knows this, and he knows something else: “I want to be in that group.’’

Last season, there weren’t many pitchers in baseball who pitched better than Buchholz — 17-7, 2.33 ERA — from start to finish. All of the things he couldn’t seem to do after that September 2007 no-hitter against the Orioles finally came together. The stuff, the poise, the confidence seemed to blossom all at once.

He was able to set up hitters and pitch to their weaknesses and economize his pitch count.

“I had the confidence every time I went out there,’’ said Buchholz, 26, who was honored as Red Sox Co-Pitcher of the Year last night at the Boston Baseball Writers’ dinner at the Westin Copley Place.

“I’m still learning, and what I found is that things changed so much from game to game and sometimes from at-bat to at-bat. I’d pitch a guy one way in an at-bat and then he’d make adjustments and I had to make adjustments. It was a constant process.

“I think that’s what guys who have done it year in and year out can do so well. They can adjust to any situation.’’

And he couldn’t always pitch according to what the scouting reports said.

“That’s because a guy might be having problems hitting an inside fastball for a couple of weeks and all of a sudden he’s discovered something and now he’s hitting the pitch,’’ said Buchholz. “So you come inside and the guy turns on it.

“That’s what I mean. The more I get into this, the more I realize how much you have to do out there in terms of thinking and getting a feel for the hitter. You have to know how to pitch in every situation.’’

The maturity in Buchholz is astounding, considering the kid he used to be. He cares about every pitch he throws. It’s important to him to keep his team in the game.

Buchholz and Jon Lester saved Boston’s staff last season. The very pitchers he has looked up to — Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon — often failed. John Lackey was ordinary. Daisuke Matsuzaka was injury-prone.

Yet Buchholz knows what they’ve done and the résumé they can flash — one that includes big performances in the postseason. That’s where he wants to get.

“I’ve learned so much just being around a guy like Josh and the approach he brings to the game and the mentality,’’ he said. “He’s got that toughness on the mound that I’m beginning to understand. Sometimes the mental part of the game is what separates the good ones from the great ones.’’

You wonder whether Beckett, who had a troubling season, learned something about pitching from watching Buchholz. That conversation probably never took place, but frankly, Beckett needs to be more like Buchholz and try for outs rather than strikeouts.

“I never thought about it the other way around,’’ said Buchholz, “but I hope maybe I did show my teammates something out there that maybe they can use to help them.’’

What he did as well as anyone is learn to let go. If he had a poor outing, or a poor inning, he didn’t let it affect the next one.

“I’d say to myself, ‘OK, that’s over and done with — now let me see how I can get this better,’ ’’ said Buchholz. “I’d put that in the past and move on. You can’t dwell on something bad except to learn from it.’’

Perhaps Buchholz hasn’t reached the point where he can throw any pitch any time, no matter the count. But he sure came close with his changeup. He sure came close with a two-seam fastball that seemed to get him out of a lot of innings with ground balls.

Asked what he wants to improve on most from last year, he said learning to pitch better with men on base. Yet when you look at his numbers, how much better can he be? He allowed a .202 average with men on base, a .161 average with runners in scoring position.

Every pitcher wants to be able to throw 200 innings a year. The Sox were trying to build Buchholz toward that, but they were content with the 173 2/3 he worked last year, his first full season in the rotation. He was consistent — lefthanders hit .230 against him, righties .221 — and had some gems like the June 4 complete-game five-hit shutout against Baltimore.

If things continue to go on an upward path, Buchholz will be in the conversations about Cy Young Awards, 20-win seasons, and elite status.

Every pitcher will have rough patches. Some fall back after a dominating season. We saw that last season with Zack Greinke, who went 10-14 after winning the 2009 Cy Young.

Buchholz isn’t thinking that way. As he said, he wants to be in that special group. Every time he takes the mound, he wants it to be an event, not just an outing.

And so that journey begins in April.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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