Sunday, March 1, 2009

Buchholz regaining his confidence

It wasn't easy. It was 10-pitch at-bat against Joey Votto, one of the National League's best young hitters. It was an at-bat featuring a quick three-ball count and then numerous foul balls on tough pitches that would retire most other hitters. It only would have taken one mistake either to issue a walk or to give up a line drive in the gap somewhere. It wasn't at all easy.

At this point in the spring, though, Clay Buchholz doesn't want it to be easy. He doesn't want it to be the type of challenge -- the type of disaster, really -- last year's spring training became. But he doesn't want it to be easy.

"I’m never ever going to say it was easy ever again because that came back and bit me," the 24-year-old righty said. "But it’s fun right now, and if you’re not having fun, you’re not going to do well."

Last season was not fun. Last season was a struggle from the start and only snowballed from there; by the time he got shelled by the Yankees in his third start of the season, he couldn't think about much else besides the inevitable demotion to Pawtucket that was waiting for him. His confidence was shot. He couldn't repeat his delivery. He couldn't make a curveball and fastball look the same coming out of his hand. His arm angle was all over the place.

He was 2-3 with a 5.53 ERA when he was sent down in mid-May. When he came back in July and August, he went 0-6 with an 8.29 ERA.

Everything was just bad -- and it all started back in spring training.

"They always say, 'You’re not going to make the team the first day in camp,' but every day in camp, it was like, 'OK, I’ve got to make the team today. I've got to make the team today,'" he said. "The stress and the pressure kept building and building, and that’s where I sank. It was hard, from the second day in spring training on through the season."

On Saturday, though, everything seemed to feel comfortable for the pitcher the Red Sox repeatedly refused to trade during the offseason.

He kept his fastball low, and he kept hitters off-balance with his changeup. Jerry Hairston rocketed one changeup into the Red Sox dugout behind third base; Jay Bruce ripped another into the seats just beyond first base. But neither came close to the playing field; neither hitter was close to timing the changeup he hit.

The only hit Buchholz yielded was a bouncer to third that Nick Green might have fielded had he charged it; instead, he backed up and watched it take a bad hop right over his head.

And here's the at-bat against Votto:

* Fastball for a called strike to start things off.
* Curveball that didn't curve and instead stayed high and away.
* Changeup that hung, staying high and away.

("I went back to a couple of things I was doing last year," he said after the game. "I went back to spinning off on my landing side. The best part was that I recognized it and was able to go back to what I’ve been working on and made better here in spring training.")

* Fastball down and in, dribbled foul.
* Fastball farther down and in, running the count to 3-2.
* Changeup that Votto mistimed, swinging too early and dribbling it foul.
* Fastball down and in, fouled away.
* Either a fastball or a slider up in the zone and in on the hands, fouled away.
* Slow curve dribbled foul along the first-base line.
* Fastball down and in: Grounded to second base for an easy out.

"That’s the first time I’ve ever got that guy out," he said with a relieved smile after the game. "He’s always just hit me really hard. That was a good mental break for me. I knew what he was capable of doing, and I was able to get pitches in on his hands where he fouled them off. He fouled off a couple of good pitches, and then I got him to ground out. I definitely wasn’t try to strike him out there; I was trying to locate and make him put the ball in play and let the guys behind me back me up."

If he can do that -- stay within his delivery, keep the ball down and not try to do too much -- he should stay right in contention for a spot in a loaded Red Sox rotation.

"I'm still fighting for this job," he said. "I know I don't have a legit spot yet on this team. So be it: If I start in Triple-A, I start in Triple-A. I'm just trying to make the decision of them sending me to Triple-A or being in Boston the hardest possible decision for them to make."

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