For Buchholz, everything begins with offseason
Red Sox right-hander out of sync most of this season due to inconsistent winter
BOSTON -- The enthusiasm Clay Buchholz speaks with these days doesn't necessarily mesh with the numbers (8-9, 5.29 ERA), which, by any measure, aren't pretty and haven't been all season. But the fact that the right-hander can find positives in his current situation and his immediate future is a very good thing for the 2015 Red Sox.
By the time Spring Training starts in February, there are bound to be several key new members of Boston's pitching staff. But of those currently on the roster, none is likely to be as impactful as Buchholz when he is on his game.
So why does Buchholz feel so optimistic as he closes out one of the most disappointing seasons of his career?
"I just know what the difference is between me feeling good coming into camp and not really knowing what I'm going to feel," said Buchholz. "I know that I'm going to feel good. That's the No. 1 thing everybody always says -- health is the key -- and if I'm healthy, I think I'm pretty good."
Aside from a tough night against the Pirates last time out, Buchholz has been pretty good of late.
There will be two more starts for Buchholz to build on going to the offseason, the first on Tuesday night against the Rays and finally in Sunday's season finale against retiring captain Derek Jeter and the Yankees.
If Buchholz's erratic game log confuses you as to what type of pitcher he actually is, the right-hander has a pretty strong grasp on why his 2014 season went the way it did. It started with the right shoulder woes that turned his glittering first half of 2013 into a laborious mess by last year's playoffs.
The injury and subsequent dead-arm period put a scare into Buchholz, one that had him putting on the brakes for much of last winter. All of the Red Sox's decision makers were in agreement last offseason that a conservative approach was the right one for Buchholz, in light of what he had gone through.
However, Buchholz underestimated how much that was going to affect him in the early weeks and months of this season.
"I knew, going into camp, I was going to be a little bit behind," said Buchholz. "But I seemed to be a lot further behind than I thought I was going to be. The way we build for a season, how we throw and everything, it's all repetition. That's how you feel good about something, is if you keep repeating and repeat your mechanics."
Buchholz is a pitcher who relies very much on his feel. That's why the early stages of 2014 became unsettling for him in a hurry.
"I was going out in Spring Training, trying to basically get into midseason form by skipping the first two steps of getting there," said Buchholz. "I think that affected basically the whole season, up until those couple of starts before the All-Star break. That's when I actually started feeling back to almost normal with each pitch."
Buchholz makes it clear that he's not trying to blame the Red Sox's front office, manager, pitching coach or training staff for a season that started horrifically.
"If it's anybody's fault, it's mine," said Buchholz. "I'm not trying to place the blame somewhere else or make an excuse, because I don't have any excuses for anything. I got enough rest to allow my body to heal. I took a certain amount of time off that I felt like I needed to take off, and it got me through this year healthy, as far as my shoulder and everything. I didn't have any ill effects from last year. I think that's the biggest thing for me."
In other words, Buchholz paid a price this season, but he could reap the benefits next year.
"Whenever I missed with a pitch last year, especially at the beginning of the season, I missed off the plate," said Buchholz. "This year, I was missing middle and it was getting hit. It's a thin line, a really thin line. Going into the offseason and feeling healthy -- and being able to have a normal offseason -- I think, is a really big thing, especially for me, because I'm more of a feel-type pitcher. All of my pitches work off of how everything feels, and that's getting to that point. Step one is to have a good offseason, so that's what I'm looking forward to this year."
There was a pitch in Kansas City on Sept. 11 that was an eye opener for catcher David Ross, in that it told him Buchholz was finally back to the pitcher who can dominate.
"It was a front-door sinker, the one he really hadn't had," said Ross. "It is a game changer, and he hadn't had his as much. I saw one he threw right at [Eric] Hosmer -- it started up here, and it ended up almost right down the middle. I saw it on replay, and I was like, 'Whoa, that's the guy I know.'"
Earlier in the season, Buchholz looked almost unrecognizable. Things were so bad after a shellacking in Atlanta on May 26 that his ERA had ballooned to 7.02. Buchholz was placed on the disabled list with a hyperextended left knee, though the move was made more to give him a mental break.
Buchholz returned on June 25, and he has posted a 4.47 ERA since then.
"He's showing some flashes of brilliance again, and has been for a long period of time," said pitching coach Juan Nieves. "Very positive finish. We never expected to really start the season up to par, because he finished the season on a bad note. The good thing about it is he's been pitching all year. Health is not an issue anymore, and we can take this and create a base for next year."