Buchholz puts bumpy road behind
Red Sox pitcher's past struggles make All-Star selection sweeter
Professional baseball has humbled Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz.
Like many other young players, the former top pitching prospect and current full-time major league starter has experienced both the highs and lows. Before turning pro, Buchholz had known only success and had no idea what it was like to fail.
Originally selected by the Red Sox 42nd overall in the 2005 draft, the Texas native climbed his way up the organizational ladder quickly and reached the big leagues in his third professional season. In his second career start for the Red Sox, on Sept. 1, 2007, Buchholz tossed a no-hitter against the Orioles at Fenway Park.
He was 23 and an instant celebrity in Boston.
"It was different. It was definitely different," he said recently. "It was difficult for me when I was 23 to [be in the majors]. Everywhere you walk, people are yelling at you for autographs. It's definitely different. It was a mad turn of events coming up here. It takes one person to recognize you, and then everybody knows who you are and then it gets a little hectic from there. It makes you grow up real quick."
The Sox told me, 'We're sticking with you, and you're going to figure it out sooner or later.' That was the starting point, and thank God because it's helped me mature a whole lot. It's been a roller coaster, but the All-Star thing is something I never thought would ever happen.” -- Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz
He had difficulties dealing with it.
"In '07, it was awesome just to be on the field at Fenway and when you're walking down the street and people know who you are because that's what you want when you're a kid," he said. "You want to sign autographs and all that stuff, but when it hits you at full force, it's like, 'OK, this is why the game is hard.' It's not only the game on the field, but off the field, too. It's a little crazy and it took me a little bit of time to get used to."
It was only a few weeks after his no-no that there were some undisclosed maturity issues on and off the field with Buchholz, and the Red Sox decided to shut him down for the remainder of the season due to shoulder strength issues.
"There's a lot that has happened since that September -- good and not so good," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said.
Now Buchholz is an All-Star, albeit one who won't play in the game because he is on the disabled list with a strained hamstring. He was named to the American League All-Star roster by his peers, and is in Anaheim with teammates Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre. He is scheduled to pitch Friday, though he said Monday that he was unsure whether it will be for the Red Sox against the Rangers at Fenway Park or a in a rehab start in the minors.
Even after he was named to his first All-Star team at the big league level, the talented right-handed pitcher said luck was the reason he was selected.
Luck had nothing to do with it.
Being named to an All-Star team is an outward acknowledgement of the work Buchholz has done on a daily basis. It hasn't always been an easy journey to this point.
Buchholz earned a spot on the 2008 Opening Day roster and posted a 2-2 record with a 3.71 ERA in his first six starts of the season. Things turned bad quickly for him as he went 0-7 with a 9.21 ERA in his final nine starts of the season.
After his last outing for the Red Sox that summer, in Baltimore, Buchholz was distraught. He made a comment after that game, saying that when he issued a walk to one batter, he suddenly felt, and pitched, like the bases were loaded. That was not a good sign for him or the Red Sox, so it was decided he would be optioned back to Double-A Portland.
Buchholz thought his career in the big leagues was over.
"He came out of that start wondering who and what he was as a pitcher," Farrell said.
When Buchholz arrived in Portland, he had a closed-door meeting with then-Sea Dogs pitching coach Mike Cather. The two already had a strong relationship, so they discussed what the pitcher needed to do to right what was wrong.
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Once Buchholz stepped on the rubber for his first start back with the Sea Dogs, he realized he could still play the game. He dominated in his two starts for Portland.
"It was like a man among boys almost," he said. "I knew those guys weren't going to hit me. Cat told me that was the mentality I needed. I didn't know why I was going out there scared sometimes."
Those two starts were the springboard for offseason work in the Arizona Fall League, and when Buchholz arrived at spring training in 2009, he felt as good as he ever had on the mound.
It finally clicked for Buchholz, even though he knew there was no way he would make Boston's starting rotation out of camp. He didn't.
He was sent to Triple-A Pawtucket to start the season and he used that opportunity as motivation to get back to the majors. He ranked among the leaders in the International League in ERA, strikeouts and innings, and held opponents to a .191 batting average for the PawSox.
"I felt better throwing in Triple-A than I did when I threw the no-hitter," he said.
Because of his growing success and an injury to Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, Buchholz was recalled to Boston on July 17.
"A chain of events happened, and once I got up, I made a personal oath that I would never go back to Triple-A," he said.
His work ethic improved both on and off the field, and he finally gained the confidence he was so desperately seeking.
"It's a battle to stay in an organization like the Red Sox because if you don't do your job, they're going to find someone who will," he said. "Knowing that, it makes you work that much harder."
Because of his history of adversity and his sudden resurgence, Buchholz thought the Red Sox were about to deal him at the trade deadline in July 2009 to Cleveland as part of the Victor Martinez transaction. But the Red Sox would not part ways with Buchholz. Instead they dealt pitcher Justin Masterson along with pitching prospects Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price to the Indians in exchange for Martinez.
"They gave me plenty of opportunities to prove myself up here, and when it didn't happen I was definitely expecting to be out of here," Buchholz said. "Before the whole Masterson thing went down, I thought for sure it was me. I called my family and told them to cancel all the flights to Boston that year."
It turned out there was no reason for Buchholz's family and friends to change their travel plans.
"The Sox told me, 'We're sticking with you, and you're going to figure it out sooner or later.' That was the starting point, and thank God because it's helped me mature a whole lot. It's been a roller coaster, but the All-Star thing is something I never thought would ever happen."
Acquiring players, particularly in a market like Boston where the expectation is to play in October every year, is always going to be in discussion. In order to get an established and proven major leaguer, an organization has to be ready to part ways with a top prospect, and Buchholz's name often surfaced in trade speculation. The Red Sox knew Buchholz's potential because he has the combination of youth and ability.
"When you have that combination, those are rare players, rare pitchers," Farrell said. "Replacing youth and talented players is extremely hard to do, and he has shown the ability to survive and really perform well in this environment, which is another rarity. And when you get to know that type of player, you begin to pound the table and say, 'No. This is a guy to keep and build around.' I think it's still early in his career to call him a cornerstone, but he is clearly an upper-end rotation pitcher and we all know the cost of acquiring those are enormous."
Buchholz is not cocky. He's not vocal. He's just happy to be playing professional baseball in Boston and he's finally having the kind of success the Red Sox knew he would.
Now, he's an All-Star.
"To think how he has adjusted, based on the teacher who is out here -- the game itself -- is really remarkable," Farrell said.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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