It's tough to make any predictions about Clay Buchholz at this stage. He has just two spring training starts under his belt, for one thing. For another, there's no guarantee he's even going to get a chance to pitch in the major leagues this season other than in spot duty. Brad Penny, if healthy, appears to be ahead of him in the race to fill out the starting rotation; John Smoltz is due to be ready to pitch sometime around Memorial Day and is seen as a secret-weapon fourth starter for the postseason.
But the way he's looked and sounded thus far, Buchholz could be in line for a Jon Lester-type breakthrough season this year.
Buchholz tossed two scoreless innings against the Reds in his spring debut on Saturday. He wasn't nearly that sharp on Thursday, but, in some ways, that made it a better experience. He wiggled out of two jams and proved both to his team and to himself that he has the self-confidence to shake off adversity and not let bad innings snowball.
"I couldn't ask for a better outing," he said.
In the first inning, Buchholz saw Felipe Lopez reach on a throwing error and Ramon Vazquez follow with a slap single to left field. All of a sudden, he had two runners on and no one out and Carlos Beltran striding to the plate -- and all the makings of a crooked-number inning.
"Two guys on, nobody out -- last year, it would have snowballed," he said. "It would have been three runs at the least. But my thought process was, 'Make a pitch right here and get a ground ball.'"
Buchholz went fastball away, curve in, fastball away and fastball away to Beltran before striking him out on a breaking ball down and in. He then induced a fly ball from Carlos Delgado and struck out Alex Rios on an absolutely gorgeous curveball that froze the Blue Jays outfielder in his stance.
The biggest pitch might have been his strikeout pitch to Beltran. Getting the first out meant he was within a ground ball of escaping; allowing another hit, though, might have gotten that snowball going with an avalanche of runs still to come.
"Everybody knows he's one of the best hitters," Buchholz said. "(The approach) was basically to get the ball down in the zone and get a ground ball out of it."
As a follow-up, he was asked if the fact that it was Beltran made it even more of a confidence boost. He said, interestingly, that it wasn't -- and that tells you something about the confidence with which Buchholz is pitching this spring.
"I went into Double-A last year thinking, 'I'm so much better than these guys that they don't stand a chance,'" he said. "That's what my mindset should be anywhere. They don't know what I'm throwing. ... I feel like I have the advantage whenever I'm facing anybody. It feels good to have a little bit of confidence."
Buchholz got himself into even more trouble in the second inning, as a single, double and hit batsman loaded the bases with no one out. But he got Hiram Bocachica to hit a ground ball to shortstop that Julio Lugo turned into a double play, and Lopez followed with a lazy grounder to first base to end the inning. One run scored on the double-play ball, but that was it.
"I would take one run in a bases-loaded situation, nobody out, every time," he said. "I don't even have to get out of it with no runs. One run is not going to beat this ballclub. They're going to score an average of four to six runs a game. I feel comfortable with that. Last year, I didn't. Last year, I thought, 'I've got to get out of this with nobody scoring.'"
Buchholz's stuff has never been in question. It's his confidence. It's his focus. It's his mental approach.
All of a sudden, he looks confident, focused and like he's got the right mental approach. Those visions Theo Epstein had of a Lester-Buchholz one-two punch in the rotation suddenly might not be too far off.
(And, yes, this means I've changed my mind.)
Michael Bowden, who surrendered three runs in a rocky fourth inning, appears to be enduring the same difficulties this spring that Buchholz did last spring. But he has two advantages Buchholz didn't.
For one thing, he has someone who's been through it before to give him pointers. For another, he's not going to start the season having to face big-league pitching. He'll have some time to find himself again against minor-league hitters -- the way Buchholz did -- at Triple-A Pawtucket.
"I wanted to let him in on, 'If you don't want to throw a pitch in a certain situation, shake off,'" he said. "That was a big deal for me last year. I'd go in there and it's Jason Varitek -- granted, he's probably one of the best pitch-callers in the game -- and even when I'd have a pitch gripped in my glove and I was going to throw that pitch and he'd call a fastball, I'd switch to the fastball because, 'OK, maybe he sees something I don't.' Six or seven times out of 10, it would get hit. I just didn't have any conviction in throwing that pitch. I wanted throw another one -- and then you're kicking yourself in the butt for throwing that pitch whenever it gets hit. ...
"That guy's a bulldog on the mound, but I told him he looks like a little puppy because he's sort of timid on what he's doing. Growing up with him, playing baseball in the last four or five years, I know what kind of pitcher he is and what kind of stuff he has. It's hard to watch him pitch when he's not convicted in what he's doing."
Said Bowden, "I'm a bulldog out there, so I throw what I want to throw and throw it with conviction. Sometimes, if they put down a sign that I don't want to throw, sometimes I agree with it; I'm passive with it and not throwing it with the conviction I'd like. We were just talking about it: If they throw down a sign and you don't want it, shake off to a sign you want so you do throw it with conviction. That was a big part of it."