Clay Buchholz Hoping to Live Up to High Expectations in 2010

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Clay Buchholz Hoping to Live Up to High Expectations in 2010 Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz pitched a no-hitter in his second major league start. Please forgive him for having a tough time living up to that standard.

Despite some major ups and downs from the 25-year-old, though, the Red Sox seem confident that sticking with Buchholz will pay off in a big way — and that it will happen sooner rather than later.

In those first few trips north from Triple-A Pawtucket late in the 2007 regular season, the highly touted, lanky native of Lumberton, Texas, went 3-1 with 1.59 ERA with the parent club, striking out 22 batters and allowing just 14 hits in 22 2/3 innings pitched.

That offseason, the Buchholz hype machine went into overdrive. And it was successful. When the Red Sox talked trade with any potential partner, Buchholz's name was always on the partner's wish list.

But the Red Sox brass hung onto their pitching commodity. And Buchholz made them look good, earning a spot with the major league squad out of spring training in 2008. In fact, pitching coach John Farrell even suggested that the youngster could be in line to pitch 180-190 innings that season.

But Buchholz struggled out of the gate. He went on the DL in May, was sent back down to Pawtucket to rehab and came back up in the middle of July, but he still couldn't recapture the magic from the previous season. On Aug. 20, he was bombed by the Orioles — and the Red Sox had finally seen enough. Buchholz was sent back down, this time to Double-A Portland. All in all with the big league club, he had gone 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA, allowing 93 hits and walking 41 batters in just 76 innings. In his 15 starts, the Red Sox had gone a disastrous 3-12.

So general manager Theo Epstein wasn't quite sure which Buchholz to believe when the team broke camp in 2009. But coming off a disappointing ALCS loss to the Rays the previous fall, Epstein and manager Terry Francona didn't want to take any chances. Buchholz would start the season at Pawtucket.

And start he did. Buchholz went 7-2 in 17 first-half appearances, posting a slick 2.36 ERA. In one start, he took a perfect game into the ninth inning before giving up a hit and finishing off a one-hit shutout. He was impressing opponents, scouts and coaches alike.

"Coming into this year, there's been a lot of development with ‘Buch' over the last year and a half," Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson told The Boston Globe at the time. "He's starting to get to the point where he's figuring things out. I'm not talking about quality of stuff, I'm talking about maturity, throwing strikes when he needs to."

When Francona needed a spot start in the bigs just after the All-Star break, the club couldn't resist calling on Buchholz. And this time, he didn't let them down.

Buchholz won that first start on July 17 against the Blue Jays and was immediately sent back down. But days later, when knuckleballer Tim Wakefield went on the DL, Buchholz came right back up and stayed with the Red Sox the rest of the way.

He reminded Red Sox fans why they had been so excited about him in the first place. During a six-game, month-long, nearly unhittable stretch, Buchholz went 5-0 with a 1.32 ERA. All in all, he was a solid 7-4 with a 4.21 ERA in 16 starts. He even got his first postseason start, allowing just two runs in five innings of Game 3 of the ALDS against the Angels. Down the stretch for the Red Sox, Buchholz was arguably the team's second-best pitcher behind lefty co-ace Jon Lester. The Boston brass didn't take that improvement lightly.

"We've got a young pitcher who came up halfway through the season and wasn't just a good young pitcher — he was a good pitcher," Francona told MLB.com recently. "Not only did it help us win games, but it helped make our organization a lot healthier. You can take young pitchers and kind of plug them into your future. And like we said, it makes the glass a lot fuller. It's exciting."

Epstein's confidence in the young righty also grew by leaps and bounds compared to the previous year. In fact, he's already keeping a spot in the starting rotation warm for Buchholz in 2010.

"Unlike last year, he's someone we can sit here and pencil into our rotation for next year," Epstein said. "That's a good feeling. It's important as an organization not to give up on young pitchers when they're down, if they have the talent, ultimately, to succeed at the big league level.

"There were a lot of low points," Epstein went on to say, "where he was someone who could have been given up on and traded at a low point in his value or [Francona] or John [Farrell] could have said, 'We don't want this guy pitching in our rotation.'

"That didn't happen in this organization. A lot of people stepped up on a personal level to help impact Buch positively. And ultimately, as always happens at the end of someone's development, he stepped up himself to decide he wanted to take responsibility for being the kind of pitcher he could be."

It's precisely that kind of confidence in Buchholz that will ensure his continued development and success in 2010.

Will he be the Red Sox' opening day starter and ace? No, they have Josh Beckett and Lester to fill that role. But can he be a legitimate third starter — toss 180-200 innings and hopefully win 12-15 games for a pennant-contending team? Absolutely.

"I feel like I did a little better job this year as far as being a little bit more consistent and showing these guys that this is where I feel I belong," Buchholz said after the season. "It's going to feel good going into spring training knowing that I actually have a legitimate shot to be on this team instead of hoping and wanting."

The Red Sox, too, know that Buchholz belongs. They've been right about him before. And they're hoping he proves them right again.

NESN.com will be answering one Red Sox question every day in November.

Sunday, Nov. 15: Who's the next breakout position player prospect?

Tuesday, Nov. 17: How much will Junichi Tazawa contribute in 2010?

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