The Red Sox will break camp with 25 players heading north to Boston. We begin a daily look at each position on the club, from the projected starters to their backups. Our latest installment continues to examine the starting rotation, with Friday's focus on Clay Buchholz.
The big leap
Not only was Clay Buchholz not assured a spot in the starting rotation entering last spring, there was one moment when he seemed completely unprepared.
On March 23 against the Twins, Buchholz allowed six runs in 1 2/3 innings of a spring training game, throwing three wild pitches, hitting a batter and walking three in the process. Just days before the season was to begin, his ERA was 10.80 and some were wondering if the back end of the Red Sox rotation would feature Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka, once he became healthy, rather than Buchholz.
Five months later Buchholz was in the mix for the American League ERA crown.
Red Sox brass knew that the lanky Texan would develop into something special at some point. That's why they withheld dealing him multiple times and never wavered when he looked about as bad as can be in a meaningless Grapefruit League game.
Buchholz was 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA last season. He beefed up his frame a bit, got a little more giddy-up in his velocity and mastered his secondary stuff. The righty gave up one earned run or less in 14 of his final 20 starts.
That the Red Sox have a special pitcher on their hands is clear. The fact that he only has one full season under his belt shows that he could be even better.
"He's a very successful major league pitcher and it's time for him to try to find ways to get better," manager Terry Francona said this week.
Some people who have poured over the numbers inside the numbers have suggested that Buchholz was a tad fortunate last season, that some hard-hit balls were caught or hit right at people. Buchholz almost admitted as much earlier this month, but stressed that statistics don't mean a thing.
"The team played great behind me. That was one of the key things for me, I think," Buchholz said. "You can't always have that. Errors are going to be made and you're going to give up hits and home runs but to keep it to a minimum like last year, it was awesome. As far as numbers go I'm not going to expect anything."
While he gave credit to his teammates for helping to keep that ERA as low as it was, Buchholz knows that his mental makeup was just as critical in allowing him to survive sticky situations. In the past, he sometimes made too much of things once he got into trouble, often paying too much attention to runners, as was the case that March night in Fort Myers. Once the regular season began, it was no longer an issue.
"I matured a little bit as far as big situations, making a pitch to get out of a jam," Buchholz added.
Francona announced this week in camp that Buchholz will get his first action of the spring Sunday night against the Twins. If he throws the ball all over the place, like he did the last time he was on the mound at Hammond Stadium, it won't cause anyone to worry or wonder what it means for his immediate future. A lot has changed in a year.
As will be the case with each member of the starting rotation, Wakefield is prepared to pick up some starts if and when they go down.
If all else fails
General manager Theo Epstein has identified starting pitching depth as an area he may still need to address. Beyond Wakefield, keep an eye on right-hander Alfredo Aceves and reports that the Sox are interested in Chad Durbin.