Buchholz Debut Whets Appetites

BOSTON—A day that occurred much sooner than anyone anticipated began a bit too quickly for Clay Buchholz and ended just as he was beginning to feel comfortable.

The Red Sox provided Buchholz all the offense he'd need with six runs in the first and Buchholz overcame a nervous start to last six innings and win his major league debut as the Sox beat the Angels, 8-4, in the opener of a day-night doubleheader Friday at Fenway Park.

"The fifth and sixth innings, I felt like it was all starting to fall into place," said Buchholz, who is only the second Sox rookie to win his major league debut this decade. "I could have gone seven or eight and I think it would have been the same way."

Buchholz has yet to navigate the late innings with any regularity—he pitched six innings just once in 24 starts last season for Single-A Greenville and Wilmington and has pitched seven innings three times in 21 starts for Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket this year—and allowed three runs on five hits while facing a total of nine batters in the fifth and sixth Friday. Overall, he allowed four runs (three earned) on eight hits and three walks while striking out five and throwing 91 pitches (58 strikes).

But Buchholz didn't need to be at his best to display the stuff that inspired the Sox to select him with the 42nd pick of the 2005 draft and has organizational decision-makers believing he can become the first homegrown Sox ace since Roger Clemens. While his command was not as good as it has been thus far at Portland and Pawtucket—he's got 164 strikeouts, most in the minors, and just 30 walks in 117 innings—he threw his plus fastball as high as 95 mph along with a curveball, a slider and his "out" pitch, a changeup that is devastating because it's delivered with the same arm speed as his fastball.

Buchholz is so confident in the changeup he threw it four straight times at one point in the fourth inning. "I don't even think you have to compare [Buchholz] to young pitchers, his changeup's good, now," Terry Francona said. "And he throws it and he throws it again."

Said Buchholz: "I've been able to throw it in a lot of counts that I shouldn't be able to throw it in and getting swings and misses out of it and a couple of ground balls."

More importantly, Buchholz slowed things down on a day that could have easily spiraled out of control by displaying a toughness and maturity belying his youthful appearance and relative inexperience.

He's not an imposing figure on or off the mound. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, Buchholz seems to disappear into his warmup jacket. And with his wide-eyed expression and clean-shaved, unlined face, he looks like the type of person who'd have to produce two forms of ID in order to get past the door at any of the bars around Fenway.

But Buchholz is unfazed by neither his rapid rise to the majors and the resultant expectations nor whatever awaits him on a big league diamond. Admittedly nervous as he took the mound in the first inning, Buchholz threw his first five big league pitches out of the strike zone.

"I was just thinking too much instead of throwing it," Buchholz said of his early struggles. "Basically going out there and telling myself that I had to throw strike one instead of just throwing it and letting it happen out of my hand. I was thinking too much. I settled down and [everything] fell into place."

Buchholz would have escaped the first inning unscathed if not for J.D. Drew's two-base error on a Vladimir Guerrero fly ball and had to adapt to a new catcher when Doug Mirabelli left the game with a strained quad muscle following the first inning. But Buchholz, who met with both catchers prior to the game, remained stone-faced throughout—aside from a fist pump after Kevin Youkilis speared a liner off the bat of Gary Matthews Jr. and turned an unassisted double play to end the fifth—and stranded four runners in scoring position.

"He competes—the game didn't quicken up," Francona said. "With some comfort and less of a heartbeat, I think you'll see him command a little bit better."

"There were a lot of [nerves]," Buchholz said. "Then the second inning passed and then the third inning and fourth inning on, I felt good out there. I still tried to overthrow a couple of pitches, but that comes with the territory, I guess."

Buchholz was also pitching in front of a lot more people than just the 36,686 crammed into Fenway Park. His debut was all the rage around the Internet water cooler, with fans eschewing work in order to track and chronicle his every pitch on message boards.

"The way that he has carried himself this year, particularly pitching in Portland and Pawtucket and all the press he's been getting—NESN was reporting live from his first Triple-A start—the kid, the way he has been able to deal with it, has been just extremely impressive," said Sox director of amateur scouting Jason McLeod, who selected Buchholz during his first year with the Sox. "I'm just so happy for him."

This was also a watershed day for McLeod and the rest of the Sox' player development staff, which is understandably pleased over the haul it drafted in 2005, and an indicator of the organizational commitment to stockpiling pitching in both the long- and short-term.

Buchholz is the first Sox rookie to make his major league debut with one-and-done spot start in the opener of a doubleheader since Abe Alvarez in 2004. Alvarez, a junkballing lefty whose fastball barely reaches the mid-80s, hasn't made a big league start since and was recently turned into a situational reliever at Pawtucket.

And 52 weeks ago Friday, the Sox' 2006 season began spiraling out of control when they sent Jason Johnson to the mound in the opener of a day-night doubleheader against the Yankees, who not only swept the doubleheader but all five games of the series. Johnson was designated for assignment afterward and hasn't started a major league game since.

"I think what we've seen with our drafts the last couple years [is] we've certainly gone for guys with bigger ceilings and bigger upsides that can be impact-type guys," McLeod said. "And that's not a knock on Abe Alvarez at all, but I think it's just exciting. I think it's an indicator of the future of the franchise in the minor leagues and the type of kids that we've got coming."

In Buchholz' case, at least, the future arrived quicker than expected. When he was drafted, Buchholz said he hoped to be in the majors in three years. But he reached the majors after just 277 1/3 professional innings.

"Obviously, we loved what we felt he would be," McLeod said. "I can't sit here and say I thought he'd be here in 2007, in two years. I mean, sure, I thought he had a great future ahead of him. I truly did. I thought he could be one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. It's just great to see how it played out."

The future will be on hold for at least a couple weeks. As was the plan beforehand, Buchholz was optioned to Triple-A between games to make room for fellow 2005 draftee Jacoby Ellsbury. But a return to the majors after Sept. 1 appears likely, and a spot in the rotation to open the 2008 season looks all but certain for Buchholz.

"It's been fast," Buchholz said. "I had goals coming in out of spring training this year. I wanted to be in Double-A and that's where I started out. And then of course the next goal is to get to Triple-A and then get to step up here a little bit. It's going really fluid for me so far and I'm trying to stay on track and get back up here in a couple weeks."

And stay a lot longer than that.

Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE.

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