CLOSE

Now Commenting On:

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Buchholz rewarding Red Sox's faith in his abilities

Right-hander looking like a No. 1 starter, nearly pulling off second no-no

Buchholz rewarding Red Sox's faith in his abilities

Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz already has a no-hitter under his belt, so it's not like that's a huge hole on his resume that needed filling anyway. Besides, he appears to be building something way more significant than one magical afternoon.

After all the years of promise and disappointment, after all the stops and starts in his career, Buchholz finally may have arrived at a place where the Red Sox always believed he'd get to.

More

At 28, Buchholz appears to be a bona fide No. 1 starter. If you're unclear on the definition of that, that's OK, because a dozen baseball people probably will give you a dozen different answers. He's most likely the guy who wants the ball when the stakes are the highest, the guy teammates count on to break losing streaks, give the bullpen a night off or figure out a way to win when he doesn't have nearly his best stuff.

At the moment, the Red Sox have two guys like that. Left-hander Jon Lester is the true No. 1, an eight-year veteran who has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows -- on the field and off.

In terms of stuff and composure and all that, though, there's almost no one in baseball performing better than Buchholz. He has won all three of his starts this season, allowing one earned run in 22 innings. On Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park, Buchholz won his third straight start by taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning, broken up when Tampa Bay's Kelly Johnson dumped a broken-bat leadoff single into right field.

Here's hoping Buchholz took a moment to step off the mound and soak in the moment. He had a no-hitter in just his second Major League start, that in 2007. Buchholz was 23 years old and two years removed from being a first-round Draft choice. He'd flown through the Minor Leagues, and with instant success, couldn't have understood the magnitude of his accomplishment.

Buchholz surely knows now. Six years later, there have been times when it looked as if he might not ever fulfill all that promise. A year after the no-hitter, he tore a fingernail and was eventually sent back to Double-A. He began 2009 in Triple-A.

Buchholz won 17 games in 2010, but he sustained a stress fracture in his back that sidelined him the final three months of 2011. Buchholz needed about seven starts to feel comfortable last season, but was solid after that.

Now he's part of the rebirth of the Red Sox. In one offseason, general manager Ben Cherington remade his club from the inside out, beginning with the hiring of John Farrell as manager.

As the Red Sox's pitching coach between 2007 and '10, Farrell helped Lester and Buchholz begin their Major League careers, and it was under his guidance that they had the most success.

Farrell returned to the Red Sox with immediate credibility, not just in the hope that he could help Lester and Buchholz have success, but also in the respect in which he was held by Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, among others.

Cherington then gave the clubhouse a different look with the signings of Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, David Ross, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew and Shane Victorino. In terms of professional and work ethic and a team-first attitude, he could hardly have had made six better signings.

Cherington knew there was a gamble in adding six 30-somethings, but he also knew they'd help build the right environment. No one would question the Red Sox's attitude or effort.

All the GM had to do was getting the pitching straightened out. The Red Sox are 5-1 in games started by Lester and Buchholz, and at 7-4 overall, they sit alone atop the American League East.

Buchholz is not doing it by re-emphasizing his fastball, which means he's pitching with confidence, feeling good about his stuff and unafraid to challenge hitters. His 10 walks in 22 innings is still too many, but considering how he has struggled in past Aprils (5.19 ERA compared to 3.92 after April), it's a step in the right direction. Once focused on strikeouts, Buchholz has learned that an out is an out is an out.

"It's been a tough transition," Buchholz said during Spring Training. "[In the Minor Leagues], I was more a guy who would go out there and strike a lot of people out. I think I've gotten past that."

Plenty of pitchers make a similar transition, and if Buchholz hadn't had to deal with two serious physical issues, he might have gotten there sooner. That he took a bit longer to arrive is not important in these first days of a new season. The Red Sox are feeling better about their team by the day, and it begins with Lester and especially Buchholz.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less