Excitement slightly raised by Red Sox mound pair

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 8, 2010

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SARASOTA, Fla. - This is the fun part of spring baseball, isn’t it? Watching two outstanding young pitching prospects who could become big performers in an impressive rotation for years to come.

Righthanders Clay Buchholz and Casey Kelly are key components of Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein’s long-term pitching plans. They are likely to eventually become solid parts of a staff that has Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Buchholz and Kelly both pitched against the Orioles yesterday in a 5-4 Red Sox win on a sunny day at Ed Smith Stadium.

The Orioles were the team against which Buchholz had his greatest day as a major leaguer - a Sept. 1, 2007, no-hitter. And the stadium was where Kelly led Sarasota High to the ’07 Florida 6A state championship against Deland with a 1-0 two-hitter that folks here still talk about.

Buchholz, looking heavier and sporting a new No. 11 on the back of his jersey, allowed three runs on five hits in two innings. Kelly, who got the win, threw a scoreless seventh and eighth against scrubs who couldn’t have hit him with 20 bats.

“Very good poise, threw all his pitches,’’ said Sox manager Terry Francona about Kelly, who also drew raves from plate umpire John Hirschbeck, who comment ed to catcher Mark Wagner about Kelly.

Although Buchholz wasn’t hit hard, he left a couple of his pitches up. Still, nobody was concerned about the player who appears destined for the No. 4 spot in the Sox rotation. Asked whether Buchholz is a sure thing for the spot, Francona didn’t want to show his hand yet, but his comments led one to believe that Buchholz can be penciled in.

“We basically have six guys,’’ Francona said. “They all look healthy, really productive. Daisuke is a couple of weeks behind, but we think of Clay being in our rotation for years and we think that’s going to happen. I don’t think it’s important for us to tell him the first day of spring training where he’s going to pitch. I think we all want him to take this and go with it.’’

He didn’t really do that yesterday, but no worries.

Buchholz had a great spring last season and he wound up going back to Pawtucket. The Sox used veterans such as Brad Penny and John Smoltz in the rotation while Buchholz lit it up in Pawtucket. When he finally got his chance to come to Boston and become a permanent member of the rotation, Buchholz didn’t let anyone down. He went 7-4 with a 4.21 ERA in 16 starts and also pitched decently in the playoffs against the Angels, allowing two runs over five innings in a no-decision.

Buchholz has had a lot of ups and downs since that no-hitter. He did a lot of growing up. He got married. He gained weight, with 195 pounds now on his 6-foot-3-inch frame.

“I feel better,’’ said Buchholz, who has always been skinny and believes the real challenge in keeping on the weight will come when the weather warms up.

Buchholz said he’s been working during side sessions on pounding the lower half of the plate with his fastball, and he felt he did that yesterday for the most part.

“The one to Nick Markakis [solo homer in the first inning] I tried to get up and in and I left it over the inner third and he always hits those,’’ Buchholz said. “I was more frustrated with the two walks after the home run [to Miguel Tejada and Matt Wieters] than anything else that happened today.

“It’s early in the spring. I was a little jumpy on a couple of pitches. Other than that I felt I had good stuff. Good movement on my pitches. Changeups, when I threw them, they were good, and I threw a couple of good curveballs.’’

Buchholz is well aware there are six starters for five spots. With Matsuzaka likely to start the season on the disabled list, that’s helped his cause. Tim Wakefield is recovering from back surgery. But Buchholz said, “I’d rather win a spot than have it given to me.’’

He also said he’s always set the bar high for himself, wanting to exceed even the lofty expectations others have for him when they see his electric stuff.

One scout watching behind the plate said, “He probably didn’t locate like he normally does, but you can just see the arm strength and the stuff. He’ll be fine. Hey, there’s a reason people come to watch him every time he pitches. He’s one of the best young pitchers in the game.’’

Buchholz’s name has come up the most often in trade talk over the last three years. The Sox have resisted up until now. Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez will be a target if the Sox offense fizzles, and guess which player Jed Hoyer, the new GM of the Padres, wants in any deal for Gonzalez?

Buchholz knows he has a huge fan in Francona, who also now probably feels that way about Kelly.

Granted, the 20-year-old was facing minor leaguers by the time he toed the rubber, but he showed his repertoire. He retired the side 1-2-3 in the seventh, with a popup, a nice fielding play on a comebacker, and a strikeout. He walked a batter in the eighth and had to pitch from the stretch, another good test. After a stolen base, Kelly induced a grounder to short and a grounder to second to get out of the inning. Wagner even put down a 3-2 curveball, which Kelly executed.

“I was trying to get the nerves out of the way when I was out there,’’ said Kelly, who had many family members and friends on hand. “I just had to calm down and start hitting the strike zone.’’

“It was just really exciting to be able to pitch in front of your hometown and in front of your family, so it was a fun time,’’ he said. “In my last outing I was just trying to establish my fastball and get ahead on the count early and I just tried to mix more in today. I got a couple of ground balls and the defense made the plays.’’

Kelly said he didn’t think about the upgrade in talent he was facing yesterday as opposed to the college hitters he threw to in his first outing against Boston College.

“You can psych yourself out doing that, so I just concentrated on what I had to do and what pitches I needed to make,’’ he said.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at

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