Clay Buchholz had never felt more anxious – “not in a bad way,” he said – to climb a mound and pitch than last night. For anyone else, that would be difficult to accept. It was last the day in February, and Buchholz spent the majority of last year as part of the Red Sox starting rotation.
But the start carried significance for Buchholz because he was facing major league hitters. The last time he did that, he reached the nadir of his professional life. The Baltimore Orioles battered him, ending a ghastly stretch of 10 starts during which he allowed 43 runs in 42 innings.
And Buchholz knew, for him, how important the spring can be. Last year, he went 1-3 with a 10.03 in spring training. “I had never been in that position before,” Buchholz said. “They always say you’re not going to make the team your first day in camp. Every day in camp was like, ‘OK, I got to make the team today, I got to make the team today.’ And then the stress and the pressure kept building and building. That’s where I sank, I guess. It was hard for me the second day in spring training on through the whole season.”
So this season has already brought more enjoyment to Buchholz. Last night, once he finally took the mound, he threw two scoreless innings against the Cincinnati Reds. He struck out Jay Bruce and induced three groundball outs, a symptom of his trying to keep the ball low in the strike zone.
Buchholz endured last season rapt by his own nerves, a feeling that went away once the Red Sox demoted him to Double A Portland at the end of August. Buchholz felt more comfortable then than he had in a long time. Last night, when Willy Taveras grounded to shortstop on the second pitch Buchholz threw, Buchholz felt that way again. “That sort of took the butterflies away,” he said.
Two batters later, after Jerry Hairson flied to deep left, Joey Votto walked to the plate. After the count ran full, Votto eventually grounded to first. “That’s the first time I’ve ever got that guy out,” Buchholz said. “He’s always just hit me really hard. That was a good mental break, because I knew what he was capable of doing. I was able to get pitches in on his hands where he fouled them off. He fouled off a couple good pitches. I got him to groundout. I definitely wasn’t trying to strike him out there. I was trying to locate and make him put the ball in play and let the guys behind me back me up.”
That simplicity, that confidence, is what he gained from his time in Portland and, later, in the Arizona Fall League. Working with Portland pitching coach Mike Cather, the closest confidant Buchholz has in the organization, helped Buchholz recapture his nerve.
Buchholz has entered the spring with a different approach than last year, when he came in as the wonder who threw a no-hitter in the second start of his career. “Last year, he came in and he seemed like he knew he had some things handed to him,” Francona said. “This year, he knows it’s a little different situation. He needs to go out and show. And I think he’s handling that better.”
“The biggest difference for me this year is I know I’m still fighting for this job,” Buchholz said. “I don’t have a legit spot on this team. So be it if I start in Triple-A, but I’m going to try to make the decision for them to send me to Triple-A or keep me in Boston the hardest decision for them to make.”
So a large part of his offseason development hinged on his mental outset. But Buchholz also physical changes to make, and he showed them last night. Last season, he lurched toward the plate, almost jumping at it, and often betrayed what pitch he was throwing with his delivery. He appeared to slow his rotation last night compared to last year, but Buchholz said that wasn’t quite it.
“The right term would be under control,” he said. “Last year was jerky and jumping towards home plate whenever I was delivering a pitch. This year I’ve tried to maintain a slow steady movement and make it a little more smooth going through the zone. That has let me ease back instead of being so tense, trying to throw 100 miles-per-hour. I can thrown 91 or 92 and locate the ball a lot better.”
He felt smoother with his wind-up and stronger, the product of a more focused winter. “I took advantage of the offseason this year,” Buchholz said. Buchholz began “spinning off” after his motion at times during live practice this spring, falling toward first base too much. But he noticed the problem and fixed it himself, an ability he lacked before and appreciates now.
Buchholz also returned to throwing with his arm the angle which he feels most comfortable with. “Definitely,” Buchholz said. “It’s sort of back to where it was two years ago, three ago, in the minor leagues. That’s where it’s comfortable to me. It was sort of a discomfort to myself whenever I tried to throw it from a different arm angle. And then I’d go back to the arm angle. It was all mixed up last year. It was a fight to stay where I was at in Boston and not get sent down. That’s where the anxiety kicked in, because I knew it was going to happen sooner or later. But yeah, the arm angle is definitely fine by me. I don’t see any real problem with it, and that’s the way I’m going to keep it.”