He's back via special delivery
Buchholz brings a new motion to Fenway
(Barry Chin / Globe Staff)
Jason Varitek on Clay Buchholz
The last time Clay Buchholz was sighted in the major leagues, he was standing between the posts of a locker in the visitors' clubhouse at the Metrodome, a lost and lonely place.
He had a torn fingernail on his pitching hand, a secret he was not about to reveal, and he was still beating himself up. He couldn't understand why he couldn't get the ball down, why his fastball command had deserted him, why the hits and runs just kept coming.
With the opportunity provided by that fingernail, the Red Sox shipped Buchholz to Pawtucket. Out of the limelight, away from the stress of Boston, Buchholz could work on his fastball, refine his arm slot, and alter his mechanics to ready himself for a return to Fenway Park.
That, finally, comes tonight, when Buchholz faces the Orioles, the team against whom he achieved instant fame.
"Some of the stuff that he was able to do kind of fell away from him a little bit," Jason Varitek said. "We've had the luxury to allow him to work on things. The full extent of what he's worked on and where he's at, we'll find out. But it's valuable because you throw a no-hitter in your [second] outing - the expectations were way too high.
"He's going to be good. He's going to be really good. Just like [Jon Lester]. He's going to take lumps, he's going to go backwards, going to go forward, going to go back a little bit until they hit a complete level of experience and knowing themselves."
It was just last Sept. 1 that Buchholz made history, with Baltimore on the other side. He threw a no-hitter in his second game in the majors, exceeding even the lofty expectations for him. He reached a pinnacle before he even received a regular locker in the Red Sox clubhouse, before he knew his way around, before anything, really. Then he was shut down, came back for spring training, made the club, and didn't nearly match the hype, going 2-3 with a 5.53 ERA.
So he was sent to Triple A.
"We said, 'OK, this is what we're doing: The first few times out, we're not looking at the numbers, the results of the game,' " manager Terry Francona said. " 'We want you to establish this arm slot and, when guys get on, maintain that arm slot.' That's easy to get away from. It probably will be a little bit of a work in progress, but with his stuff, I think we're all confident that it can be a successful work in progress."
In the minors, Buchholz worked through a change in his arm angle. He used to throw more over the top, but will now sometimes drop into a "not quite three-quarters" delivery, as he described it last month. That will help him show major league hitters different looks, not allowing them to sit on his fastball with inconsistent command, or to rely too heavily on his offspeed pitches, which he did in that start in Minnesota May 12, a 7-3 loss.
Sometimes, instead of using location to get out hitters, Buchholz would overthrow the ball. Competitiveness would get the best of him, causing him to reach back for a couple of extra miles per hour on his fastball. He would sacrifice command for speed.
"The expectations were high, and rightfully so," pitching coach John Farrell said, "because you look at his track record through the minor leagues and what he had done last year while in Boston. But I think as time went on this season, he became more aware [of] his fastball command. At this level, you have to be able to throw your fastball for strikes and throw fastballs on both sides of the plate.
"He recognizes how word gets around, scouting reports get around, and the adjustments people can make. To make those adjustments, to do it at the major league setting, that is extremely hard to do, particularly in a city with the expectations and [the team] in contention for a divisional title and a World Series. All those things can compound. So to take a step back, to give him an opportunity to do it in less of a pressure environment was what was needed."
It was time to get Buchholz to focus. To get him to use his fastball more, to command it in the strike zone, and to learn to stay with it, so as not to become too predictable with his secondary stuff. That's harder with Buchholz than with some other pitchers, since his secondary pitches are so well developed for a youngster.
So they've watched and they've waited. Of course, because of the Red Sox' demanding schedule, Francona hasn't really been able to see Buchholz pitch. Farrell has gone just once in the past two months, using a day off to head to Pawtucket. They have monitored the reports, though. And, like fans in Boston, they are looking forward to tonight's start.
"We do need him up here," Francona said. "I think we all feel like we do. But we try to look at the big picture more than the small because you can make mistakes. We've wanted him here all along. He's a good pitcher. I think sometimes as a fan, or maybe the media, you see a guy throw a no-hitter and it's like [he's ready for the Hall of Fame]. There is some development that needs to go on."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.