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Repeat of Clay?

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  February 22, 2011 02:23 PM

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Pitchers are always talking about repeating their delivery. Clay Buchholz is no different.

For Buchholz, it's not just about duplicating his mechanics from pitch to pitch. It's about delivering the same level of performance for the Red Sox this season that he did last, when he made his first All-Star game and emerged as one of the best pitchers in the American League, going 17-7 with a 2.33 earned run average.

It's a season that Buchholz, by his own admission, had been waiting for since he no-hit the Baltimore Orioles in his second big league start back in 2007, a season not everyone was sure would happen in Boston, a season where the young Texan's considerable ability and the patience the organization had shown in him were validated.

When the 2011 Red Sox starting rotation is discussed, Buchholz and Jon Lester, who combined for 36 wins last season, are generally regarded as the absolutes. You can put their numbers down in pen, thank you very much. The pitchers with something to prove and doubters to silence are Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka. But the pitching mound remains a proving ground for the 26-year-old Buchholz as well.

One good season doesn't suddenly make you Roy Halladay. Proving 2010 wasn't a one-time occurrence fueled Buchholz this offseason.

"Last year was a big stepping-stone for me," said Buchholz. "It was a season that I wanted to have, and that's how I sort of visualized it going down. The numbers, it's tough to go by numbers, but the process, I think I can duplicate the process."

That Buchholz is self-aware enough to realize he has not yet arrived as an upper-echelon starting pitcher is a sign of his maturity (that and the fact he no longer throws over to first base in jams ad nauseam). It's also a lesson the lithe Texan learned in humbling fashion after his sterling 2007 major league debut (3-1, 1.59 ERA in four starts).

"You can go out and have a good half-season in the big leagues once you get called up and then you know maybe take it for granted a little bit," said Buchholz. "That's what I always say I did. I took it for granted. I thought the game was a little bit easier than it was. Maybe I didn't work as hard as I could have to get to that point. I used that as a little bit of fuel the last couple of years to go in there knowing that I had to be ready when they did call me up."

If there is a reason to throw up a caution sign regarding Buchholz, the youngest member of the Sox' rotation, this season it has less to do with any change in his demeanor or attitude and more to do with the personnel changes around him.

Gone are catcher/caddie Victor Martinez, who caught 27 of Buchholz's 28 starts last year, and pitching coach John Farrell, who nurtured Buchholz's psyche and talent. They've been replaced by Jarrod Saltalamacchia and new pitching coach Curt Young.

While Martinez's receiving and game-calling skills have been derided in these parts, he was a security blanket for Buchholz. The young pitcher's development coincided with Martinez becoming his primary catcher. In 40 games with Martinez as his catcher, Buchholz had a 2.83 ERA. Last year, Buchholz had a 2.13 ERA with Martinez.

The only time Martinez was not behind the plate for one of Buchholz's starts was a 6-4 loss to the Oakland A's on July 21. Martinez was out with a broken thumb, and Dusty Brown got the call because it was an afternoon game following a night game. Jason Varitek caught Buchholz for just four innings last year. They came when Martinez was forced to leave a May game against the Tampa Bay Rays in the third inning after a ball was fouled off his big toe.

Buchholz called Martinez "awesome" and praised his open-mindedness behind the plate, but downplayed the idea that losing his personal catcher would affect his performance.

"The catcher doesn't call the game. It's the pitcher," said Buchholz, departing from the standard Sox starter script of catcher-as-quarterback. "I mean they have to think and everything with the game, but ultimately the pitcher is going to throw what they want to throw, what they feel is the right pitch at the time.

"Almost every game when we went out last year when everything was going good [Victor and I] were on the same page. I would think of a pitch to throw before I even threw the pitch that I was about to throw. I'd be thinking two pitches ahead, and he would be on the same page for the most part. That's what makes the game flow a little bit easier.

"Your tempo is better. You can get your team back in the dugout and get them into the box and try to score some runs. I think that's just a big part of it. Catching, especially, it's a tough job back there. But when we got guys that we got right now like 'Tek and Salty. It's going to flow pretty well."

Buchholz said he got good reports on Young from two of his former pitching protégés in Oakland, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey. Buchholz spoke with the pair of A's at the All-Star game last year. He said Young is upbeat, outgoing and likes to have fun, which mirrors Buchholz's own guitar-playing personality.

It's not all fun, games and shaggy hair for Buchholz anymore. He became a father last August, as he and his wife, Lindsay, welcomed daughter Colbi. Buchholz said fatherhood has forced him to grow up off the field as well.

Perhaps, it has made him better equipped to deal with the changes around him this year.

Change is inevitable, but the goal for Buchholz is to be a repeat performer.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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