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Red Sox Notebook

Buchholz took right steps

David Ortiz gets a hand after he slugged a two-run home run in the second inning to give the Red Sox a brief 2-1 lead. David Ortiz gets a hand after he slugged a two-run home run in the second inning to give the Red Sox a brief 2-1 lead. (Lm Otero/Associated Press)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / April 3, 2011

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jason Varitek was behind the plate when Clay Buchholz no-hit the Baltimore Orioles in his second major league start back in 2007. The captain of the Red Sox is not a man who is easily impressed, but he was that night.

But in the back of his mind, Varitek wondered what would happen next. Buchholz was only 23 and Varitek had never seen a pitcher succeed without having to overcome some adversity.

“That’s how it works for us in this game,’’ Varitek said last night before the Sox were hammered by the Rangers, 12-5. “You have to take steps, and sometimes you need to take a few steps back to get where you want to go.’’

Buchholz followed that path, going 9-13 with a 5.36 ERA over the 2008-09 seasons. He spent nearly as much time in the minor leagues as he did the majors.

“He had as much success as somebody could have at the start of their career,’’ Varitek said. “But he had to battle and learn himself. Now we’re seeing what he really is.’’

Buchholz takes the mound for the Red Sox against the Rangers this afternoon not quite a finished product, but much more of a pitcher than he was that night against Baltimore. He is the No. 3 starter in a rotation expected to be one of the best in the majors and is being counted on for 200 innings.

“It wasn’t that long ago in terms of years,’’ Buchholz said. “But it feels like forever.’’

Of all the pitchers Varitek has handled in his long career, Buchholz is high on the list in terms of natural ability.

“His stuff is unbelievable,’’ said Varitek. “He has a plus changeup, a plus curveball, a cutter, a very powerful fastball, and he can sink his fastball. He’s got an extreme amount of ability.’’

But that ability needed to be refined.

“It was about location,’’ said Varitek. “Repeating your location and being around the area you’re trying to go. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to do it. But he’s gotten to where it’s not always a battle for him. He can repeat strikes.’’

Buchholz struck out nine in his no-hitter. Only once in 28 starts did he hit that mark last season (he had 10 April 22 against the Rangers). Varitek counts that as progress.

“He’s got a great gift,’’ said the catcher. “He can be a power pitcher or be a finesse pitcher.

“As he matures, he can do either or. He can pitch backward or pitch with power. Jon [Lester] is the same kind of pitcher. That allows them to be more efficient.

“Buch has learned the efficiency of pitching, and not everybody learns that. He has really started to understand himself.’’

Buchholz put it together last season, going 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA. He was an All-Star for the first time and finished sixth in Cy Young Award voting. If not for a monthlong stint on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, Buchholz might have won 20 games.

“In terms of confidence, it’s so much different for me,’’ he said. “I realize what I need to do and how to do it. It’s not always perfect but I have a game plan in my head.’’

Buchholz had a good spring training, posting a 3.43 ERA over 21 innings. But some high pitch counts did not allow him to pitch into the fifth inning in any of his starts. As a result, he could be limited to six innings today, although pitching on an extra day of rest will help.

“It depends on how he pitches,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “If he pitches good, that won’t enter into it.’’

Francona will monitor how much effort Buchholz has to put into each inning.

“That’s probably always more important than pitch count,’’ he said.

Shift work Adrian Gonzalez’s steal of second base Friday was only the second of his career. But you could see more of it. When teams shift their defense to the right side against David Ortiz, Francona will look for opportunities to steal. “That’s why we ran — they can’t defend the way they’re situated,’’ he said. “They can play wherever they want. But if they want to swing that far over, they can’t defense the runner.’’ . . . The Sox were 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position and are 4 for 23 in two games . . . The Sox are 6-15 against Texas dating to the start of the 2009 season.

Old-timer’s game When Tim Wakefield pitched in relief Friday, it marked the second Opening Day appearance of his career. His first was April 6, 1993, when he started for the Pirates against the Padres. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, his 18-year layoff between Opening Day outings is the longest for any pitcher since 1900 . . . Wakefield, at 44, was one of three pitchers 40 or older who pitched Friday in Texas. The Rangers used relievers Arthur Rhodes (41) and Darren Oliver (40). It was the first time since Sept. 13, 2007, that a game included three pitchers that old. The Dodgers played the Padres that day, with David Wells (44) facing Greg Maddux (41), and Doug Brocail (40) coming in out of the bullpen for the Padres.

Place released Jason Place, the Red Sox’ first-round pick in the 2006 draft, was released out of minor league camp. Place came out of Wren High in Piedmont, S.C., with lofty expectations and received a $1.3 million bonus. But over five seasons with the Sox, he hit .234 and never got above Double A Portland . . . Since 1919, Gonzalez is the only player to collect at least two hits, drive in three runs, and steal a base in his Red Sox debut on Opening Day . . . The start of last night’s game was pushed back 10 minutes for the Rangers to receive their AL championship rings.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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