Buchholz masters changeup

Difference in him from ’08 is startling

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / September 11, 2009

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On July 17, late at night in Toronto, Clay Buchholz shook hands and embraced several teammates before he whisked himself out of the visitors’ clubhouse at Rogers Centre. His one day as a big leaguer was over. Buchholz had to go back to Pawtucket, where he realized he might remain until September.

“I knew it was a one-time deal,’’ Buchholz said. “And then things happened.’’

In the nearly two months since that presumed cameo, Buchholz has seized his place in a Red Sox rotation upturned by injury and ineffectiveness. He has overcome his brutal 2008 season with a renewed outlook on the mound and renewed stability off of it. He has become a potentially crucial factor in the Sox’ postseason chances.

The point when the Sox owned an abundance of starting pitchers is long past. Tim Wakefield’s nerve injury continues to mystify, Daisuke Matsuzaka hasn’t pitched for Boston since June, and John Smoltz and Brad Penny are building a case for American League superiority. Into the void stepped Buchholz, who in the past month has asserted himself as the clear No. 3 starter behind Jon Lester and Josh Beckett.

“That’s what I worked hard for,’’ Buchholz said. “Eventually, sometime down the road, when it’s my time, I want to be a No. 1 on this team. That’s going to be tough, to fill the shoes that are already in that position right now. I want to be that guy, the No. 3, whenever September is over and into October. That’s the job I want to have.’’

Manager Terry Francona believes consistency, more than anything, denotes a young pitcher’s transition from promising to established. Lots of young starters can muster one great start; few can string them together.

Against the Orioles Tuesday night, Buchholz pitched seven scoreless innings and won his third consecutive start for the first time in his career. The Sox have won the last five times Buchholz has taken the mound, and over his last seven starts, his ERA is 3.00.

“There’s a lot to like,’’ Francona said. “We’ve said that from the very beginning. I think anybody can see that.

“He kind of ran into a pretty tough year last year. Everything that could go wrong just about did, and at a point it almost overwhelmed him, so we sent him down and told him to work his way back up. And he did that. And now I think we’re seeing the dividends of that.’’

At this time last year, while the Sox were vying for the postseason, Buchholz was finishing out the year in the Eastern League playoffs with Double A Portland. The Sox demoted him once his year struck its nadir, his 2-9 record and 6.75 ERA a bleak bottom line. His unraveling owed to his mind-set.

“I was afraid to fail a lot last year,’’ Buchholz said.

He thought so much about bad outcomes that he convinced himself he couldn’t make any outs. At the same time, he felt immense pressure from the previous season - “that whole no-hitter deal.’’

Playing a game defined by failure, Buchholz made perfection his standard.

“It drove me insane a little bit,’’ Buchholz said. “When last year was over, it felt like the weight of the world was off my shoulders.’’

Buchholz reported to the Arizona Fall League, where he worked with Portland pitching coach and confidant Mike Cather and spoke often with Bob Tewksbury, a club sports psychologist. He pitched well, looked at his stats, and regained his confidence.

“It didn’t really have anything to do with anybody else,’’ Buchholz said. “It had to do with me realizing the stuff’s there and there’s nothing that says I can’t do this. If you say you can’t do something, you’re probably not going to do it. That was my 2008 season in a nutshell.’’

Once the fall ended, Buchholz told himself, “Hey, that year is over. Get better this offseason.’’

Buchholz tore through spring training and the first half of the regular season in the minor leagues. Last year, he worried about any contact and tried to strike out every hitter. This year, he throws strikes in tough-to-hit locations and tries to induce weak contact.

Over his last three starts, Buchholz has started 54 of 79 batters with a strike, a 68 percent rate. In the first of those three outings, against the Blue Jays, Buchholz threw first-pitch strikes to the first 13 batters he faced, and pitched into the ninth inning while allowing three hits.

Some of Buchholz’s most important moments came after his worst starts. He spiraled after each poor outing last year. A mess of thoughts rattled around his head for four days. This year, after the Orioles tagged him for seven runs in four innings, Buchholz brushed it away and simplified his approach. Throw quality pitches to good locations. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. In his next start, he held the Yankees to two runs over six innings.

The time between starts is easier now for Buchholz in part because, he said, “I found a great girl that believes in me more than I do sometimes.’’

Last July, while the Sox were in Anaheim, Calif., to play the Angels, Buchholz attended an “Affliction’’ mixed martial arts card with teammates Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen, and Sean Casey. Between fights, they spotted Donald Trump, one of the organizers, and introduced themselves.

Afterward, while they mingled, Trump returned with a woman.

“Hey, Clay, I want to introduce somebody,’’ he said. “This is Lindsay. She’s single.’’

“He sort of threw her at me,’’ Buchholz recalled. “I was like, ‘All right.’ ’’

That’s how Buchholz met Lindsay Clubine, a model who once opened briefcases on “Deal or No Deal’’ - she was No. 26 - and now hosts a travel show.

The Sox played next in Kansas City, where Clubine is from. Buchholz offered her and her family tickets. When they met up after the game, Buchholz knew. They were engaged this spring.

Buchholz was amazed at how much easier baseball felt. He arrives home after a start, good or bad, and Lindsay never asks about the game. They’ll watch a movie.

“That’s the best thing that’s happened to me since baseball,’’ Buchholz said. “It’s something that I don’t think I’ve made a better decision in my life. She’s awesome.

“It’s good to have somebody back there that’s helping you even when things are going bad and you don’t feel like hearing anything about baseball. You want to get away from baseball, and you still feel like you have somebody there that’s trying to take care of you.’’

While he toiled in Triple A this spring, Buchholz hoped he would find a way into the rotation, but he did not envision it happening like this. He relished the idea of pitching alongside a future Hall of Famer like Smoltz, and he became good friends with Penny.

After the trials of last year and the uncertainty of this year, he is where he wants to be.

“I had a step-by-step process that I had to follow,’’ Buchholz said. “I didn’t start where I wanted to start. It was hard at times. The way it’s turned out, I couldn’t ask for anything better.’’

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