FORT MYERS, Fla. — Clay Buchholz has a free and easy delivery, which is deceiving because nothing comes free on a major league mound and nothing is easy about pitching in the klieg light crucible of Boston.
Buchholz has learned — and lived — both of those truisms since his All-Star 2010 season, when he went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA, which trailed only American League Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez. Buchholz has won 17 games combined since, including an 11-8 record last year.
We’re long past the deluded and antediluvian notion of measuring pitchers by their win-loss records. This is the age of pitching statistical enlightenment. But the fact remains a season that was supposed to be a launching pad for Buchholz has turned into a failure to launch.
It’s no secret that if the Red Sox are to restore the faith and erase the aftertaste of their 69-93 last-place finish in the AL East, both Buchholz and Jon Lester must go from wild cards to aces. Lester and Buchholz will be the weather vanes of the 2013 Red Sox. If they’re pointed in the right direction, then so are the Red Sox.
Part of the reason the Sox hired former Boston pitching coach John Farrell as manager was to “fix” Lester and Buchholz.
Much like a father-son relationship, Buchholz said his relationship with Farrell has evolved since Papa John was pitching coach. The fear Buchholz felt for Farrell has been replaced by understanding and jocularity.
“Now, he’s a guy you can laugh and cut up with,” said Buchholz. “But when it comes time to step in between the lines or go out and get your work done, he expects that from me too. It’s good for us now because basically we have two pitching coaches, and one of them is our manager.”
Buchholz is scheduled to make his second start of spring training Thursday down the road in Fort Myers against the Minnesota Twins. Lester allowed his first earned run of the spring Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
They both have something to prove.
“I know Jon worked hard this offseason. He definitely didn’t have a season that he would want to have,” said Buchholz, who called Lester one of the best in the game. “That’s any pitcher. When you expect so much out of yourself and it never gets to that point where you’re satisfied you’re definitely going to be ready to come in the next year and not prove anybody wrong, but prove to yourself that you’re as good as you think you are.”
If Josh Beckett was the Texas Tough Guy (royalties to one Michael Felger) then the 28-year-old Buchholz is the Texas Nice Guy.
A few days ago when reporters came to interview Daniel Bard, Buchholz turned down the music, so Bard’s answers wouldn’t be lost in the country music cacophony.
The mistake people make with the soft-spoken Buchholz is judging his dispassionate demeanor for a lack of passion for pitching.
The talent that allowed him to throw a no-hitter in just his second major league start is both Buchholz’s blessing and his curse.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Buchholz. “The game is never easy. Some people make it look easy a lot. Those are the guys you look at, and you’re like, ‘Man.’ They just make it look so easy that when you get beat it makes it look like you’re not even trying hard. That’s the blessing and the curse.
“When you can roll out there and know that you won’t have your best stuff and still can get by, that’s the best feeling.”
Truthfully, Buchholz’s 2012 season was better than most folks in a Boston uniform, especially considering he was returning from a stress fracture in his back that truncated his 2011 campaign. Buchholz set career highs in starts (29), innings (189⅓), and strikeouts (129), going 11-8 with a 4.56 earned run average, despite missing time with esophagitis.
However, the way Buchholz arrived at his record was whiplash worthy.
He endured a nightmare start. The Red Sox righthander was the first pitcher in major league history to allow five or more earned runs in his first six appearances of a season and sported a 9.09 earned run average after his first half-dozen trips to the hill.
But from May 11 to Aug. 16 Buchholz was 8-2 with a 2.69 ERA in 15 starts, lowering his ERA to 4.19.
Then, he went winless in his final eight starts, posting a 5.62 ERA.
The key to Buchholz’s three-month revival was ignoring his gruesome ERA and the expectations that hung around his neck like one of the necklaces he wears on the mound.
“It just got to a point where I looked at my numbers and said, ‘It’s going to be tough to make these numbers what I want them to be,’ ” Buchholz said. “So, I just forgot about them and tried to go as deep into games as I could, and give the team a chance to win every time that I was out there.”
Catcher David Ross said that Buchholz gives his batterymate a lot of options.
“You feel like you could throw a breaking ball to every guy or you could throw his cutter or his changeup,” said Ross. “It just depends on pitch selection sometimes, and knowing hitters and what their tendencies are. So, there is a little bit more involved when you have four pitches you can work with.”
So many pitches, so much talent, so many expectations . . . that is Buchholz’s blessing and his burden.
A lot of the weight of this redemptive season rides on his slender shoulders.
On his own terms or not, the Sox need Buchholz to stand (on the mound) and deliver.