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Buchholz in it for long haul

He’s ready to carry heavy load for Sox

Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz will be expected to deliver more innings this season as the team firms up its starting rotation. Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz will be expected to deliver more innings this season as the team firms up its starting rotation. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 24, 2012
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SARASOTA, Fla. - Clay Buchholz has spent parts of five seasons in the major leagues and enjoyed a central role in some memorable moments. But the righthander, now 27, has never made every scheduled start.

Buchholz was inconsistent early in his career, opening the 2008 season in Boston before being demoted to the minors. There was no room in the rotation for Buchholz for much of 2009, his chance not coming until late in July, when Tim Wakefield injured his back.

A hamstring strain cost Buchholz nearly a month in 2010 and robbed him of a chance to pitch in the All-Star Game. The problem last season was a stress fracture in his back. Buchholz missed the final 3 1/2 months of the season, watching helplessly from the bench as the Red Sox season imploded in September due largely to a lack of rotation depth.

Now Buchholz is being counted upon. With 12 days remaining before Opening Day, the Sox still haven’t determined who their fourth and fifth starters will be. One of the reasons the team didn’t sign or trade for an established starter was their belief that Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester would be able to carry a heavy load.

Beckett has averaged just less than 29 starts the last seven seasons and Lester 32 over the last four. They have established records for reliability and both have been healthy this spring.

Lester will face the Tigers on Opening Day with Beckett following the next game.

But Buchholz, who gets the third game, has never started more than 28 games or pitched more than 173 2/3 innings in a season. For the Red Sox to challenge the Yankees and Rays this season, the wiry righthander has to become as reliable as he is talented.

“If he’s healthy he’s going to have 20 percent of our starts. I would say that’s a very, very important part of the games we’re going to play,’’ manager Bobby Valentine said. “He’s got outstanding stuff and if he can carry it to the mound often enough, he’ll be a big factor in our team this year. He looks like a very good pitcher to me.’’

Buchholz has shown no effects from his back injury this spring, throwing 19 innings in five starts, one in a minor league game. He went five innings against the Orioles Friday, allowing five runs on seven hits. He struck out three, walked one and threw 86 pitches, 56 for strikes.

The Sox lost, 6-5, and are winless in five straight. Buchholz’s outing was somewhat deceiving. In the third inning, he got Nick Markakis to chase a fastball and hit what looked like a pop-up to left field. Markakis flipped his bat in disgust and jogged to first with his head down - only to see the ball catch a gust of wind and clear the fence for a two-run homer.

“Nick’s a good hitter, he always has been,’’ Buchholz said. “Some are going to go your way and some are going to go theirs. Overall I thought I did pretty well.’’

Valentine asked Buchholz if he wanted to leave after four innings, but he stayed in for another and threw nothing but offspeed pitches, getting three quick outs.

“I think that was perfect,’’ Valentine said.

“That’s a great sign of what kind of shape he’s in,’’ catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “It’s a hot day and he hung in there and kept pitching. He was strong.’’

Buchholz felt like he didn’t get enough work last spring and that contributed to a 1-3 record with a 5.33 earned run average in five April starts. So his priority this spring is to pile up innings.

“Pitch counts don’t really mean anything,’’ Buchholz said. “It’s how many times you get up and down off the bench after long innings, going back out and pitching and throwing 20 pitches. Going 3 2/3 and throwing 80 pitches doesn’t really work with getting your legs underneath you. The innings numbers are more important than actual pitches.’’

Buchholz has said his goal is to reach 200 innings. Valentine doesn’t see it in quite those general terms.

“Quality innings,’’ he said. “I want good innings when he’s pitching and then I’ll put a number on it.’’

No matter how you look at it, Buchholz has to join Lester and Beckett in being the foundation of a rotation that could be fluid over the course of the season.

“I think it’s big,’’ Buchholz said. “I think I can definitely help this team when I’m out there pitching consistently every five days.

“Pitching every five days, it lets you get in a rhythm. When you go on the DL for two or three weeks and try to come back, you’re out of whack a little bit.

“I’ve just got to stay consistent, keep working out and keep everything healthy and strong. If that’s the case, I’ll be right up there with those guys. It doesn’t mean anything on paper. You have to go out there and show you can do it.’’

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

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