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Bob Ryan

For a change, it was very good

Only one man in major league history has umpired more games than Bruce Froemming, who was behind the plate yesterday afternoon when a young'un the Red Sox think might be a real keeper was the winning pitcher in his major league debut.

So, you'd have to say the veteran arbiter's opinion carries a lot of weight.

"Randy Jones," said Froemming. "This guy has pretty good command of his pitches for a guy starting out. Reminds me of Randy Jones in that regard. And this guy's got some changeup. It surprised me to see him go to that changeup right away."

Jones was a lefthanded pitcher famous for low pitch counts and fast games. He twice won 20 games for substandard Padres teams and he walked off with the 1976 National League Cy Young Award.

Clay Buchholz, you've just been paid a compliment from a very knowledgeable source.

"He showed good poise," said Mike Scioscia, the manager of the Orange County American League Baseball Club, a.k.a. the Angels. "We were very impressed with his arm. He made some real good pitches with his changeup."

Clay Buchholz, you've just been paid a compliment from another very knowledgeable source.

Only you know if they make you feel any better now that you're back in Pawtucket with your 1-0 major league lifetime record.

This had to be one of the stranger first outings in major league history. No matter what the 23-year-old righthander did against the Angels yesterday, he was heading back to Pawtucket. He was part of the Big Picture for the 2007 Red Sox. No more, no less. They had a day-night doubleheader because of an April 15 rainout. They needed a one-time-only starter. They felt he was ready enough to fill a need. Period. End of story.

"Doesn't matter if he throws a no-hitter," Terry Francona said before the game. "He's going back down."

Come on, the skipper was asked, don't you want to leave yourself a little wiggle room in case he really does throw a no-hitter?

"If he throws a no-hitter," Francona said, "we may send him back with a present -- but he's going back."

Buchholz did not throw a no-hitter. He did not throw a shutout. He did not throw a complete game (Yeah, right). He did not even have a 1-2-3 inning. He gave up four runs (three earned) and eight hits (none smashed) in six innings as the Red Sox took the first game of the day-nighter, 8-4. He threw 91 pitches, walked three, and struck out five. He was the beneficiary of three double plays, one a liner to Kevin Youkilis at first that extricated him from a two-on, one-out spot in the fifth after he had given up four consecutive well-placed singles, good for two runs.

But he had people talking about that changeup.

"It's not just a changeup that's good for a young pitcher," Francona said. "His changeup is good -- now."

"All season, it's been the changeup," said Buchholz, a skinny Texan who's listed at 6 feet 3 inches, 190 pounds. "I have been able throw it in a lot of counts that I shouldn't be able to throw it in, and getting swings and misses out of it, and a couple of ground balls."

His fastball was clocked as high as 94 miles per hour, and generally came in at 91, but it really wasn't a major ally. His problems with the pitch were immediate, since he walked the first batter, Chone Figgins, on four pitches -- all fastballs, none you would call borderline.

"Thinking too much," Buchholz shrugged.

Figgins eventually came around on a two-base error by J.D. Drew (a low-trajectory Vladimir Guerrero fly) and a Garret Anderson infield out. The kid found himself on the 14th pitch, a changeup to Gary Matthews that produced his first swing and miss.

It was a needed ice-breaker. He induced eight swings and misses, seven on the change. Only one was a heater (a 93-m.p.h. job to Erick Aybar). Working off a change his manager would label "devastating," he used the fastball as an adjunct pitch. Of nine Angel foul balls, six were on the fastball and three on the change.

He also mixed in a major league curveball and a major league slider. "Four pitches," marveled Froemming. "That makes guys think."

So you can say Buchholz arrived in the big leagues with, as they like to say, an "idea."

"He didn't seem to be afraid of contact," noted Scioscia. "He let his defense make plays. That's important."

A lot went his way. Like, what pitcher doesn't salivate when he watches his team put up a six-run first, for example?

"It definitely made things easier pitching with a five-run cushion," Buchholz acknowledged. "You know you can give up some hits, and even runs, and not get hurt."

At no point did he look bad, not even when the Angels strung together those four one-out singles in the fifth. The book says they were hits, but you could also call them "circumstantial." You know how baseball can be. The fact is, the hardest-hit ball of the inning was the Matthews liner directly at Youkilis. Anderson had no chance to get back in time, and the kid was out of the inning on a bang-bang double play. It was quite well-deserved, in terms of diamond justice.

You knew by the pitch count that the sixth would be his finale. The Angels got a run on a Casey Kotchman ground-rule double, a nonsacrifice bunt, and a sacrifice fly, but the kid went out in style by striking out Reggie Willits on -- what else? -- a changeup.

"Any time you can command a changeup, in any league, you've got a chance," declared Francona.

Anyway, thanks a lot, kid. We'll see you in September.

"I remember catching Ramon Martínez in a similar situation," mused Scioscia about his Dodger days. "He threw something like eight shutout innings, and they still sent him back. The difference was, they didn't tell him before the game. He wasn't too pleased."

No such communication problem here. "It wasn't all that hard going out there knowing that it wasn't based on if I had a bad outing and they were sending me back because they didn't think I was doing great," said Buchholz. "I know what was going to happen. I'm coming up here and getting my feet wet a little bit and, hopefully, come back in September sometime and help them out."

If you want to see his next start, point the car toward the Pike and New York Thruway and get yourself to Buffalo. The next guy flailing at that killer Clay Buchholz changeup will be someone you never heard of.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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