BOSTON -- Clay Buchholz didn't know of Josh Tomlin when their paths first crossed. He was just a guy standing in his spot.
He soon realized he had underestimated his competition. When they take the mound at Fenway Park, Buchholz will not make the same mistake in Game 3 of the American League Division Series (Monday, 6 p.m. ET, TBS) that he did for the shortstop position at Angelina College.
"Yeah, shortstop," Tomlin said with a chuckle.
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Even as Buchholz stared at a must-win game ahead, he had to smile about it Saturday.
"This is a pretty cool story," Buchholz said.
Before they were postseason opponents, Buchholz and Tomlin were teammates at Angelina, a junior college of about 5,000 in Lufkin, Texas. Its list of famous students includes them, fellow pitcher Andrew Cashner and Mark Calaway, better known as The Undertaker in WWE.
Their old coach is still there.
"It seems like about a year ago, honestly," Jeff Livin said wistfully. "And I can say that about all my guys. But there are games burned into your memory. That team was special. But golly, I can still watch those guys pitch."
Livin had recruited Buchholz, an athletic infielder out of high school from nearby Lumberton. He opted for McNeese State in Louisiana, but changed his mind after a year.
"He wanted to be a shortstop," Livin said. "He thought he could move in that direction here. We had his high school teammate."
The problem for Buchholz was that Angelina already had a shortstop. Livin had lost another recruit, Travis Chick, to the Major League Draft a couple of years earlier, only to have Chick later suggest he check out Tomlin, an athletic, slick-fielding shortstop from his hometown of Whitehouse.
"He can pitch. He can play shortstop. He's a great athlete. He's a great kid," Livin recalled. "We wound up with him. He was probably the best shortstop I ever had, and really developed on the mound as well."
He also wasn't going to be outworked.
"You need to understand," Livin recalled telling Buchholz. "We've got one of the best shortstops I've ever coached playing at the position. But Clay was very confident. He said 'I'll beat him out.'"
The competition lasted just a few days.
"Clay came into the office," Livin said, "and he said, 'That guy's pretty good.'"
Buchholz shifted to right field and turned his focus on his pitching, where he had a fastball approaching 90 mph, but a back injury that fall sidelined him for a month and a half.
The time spent recuperating gave them the excuse to work on shortening his delivery. Once Buchholz was healthy enough to throw off a mound again, they tried out the new mechanics.
"He threw his first pitch from a full distance," Livin said, "and it just exploded out of his hand. I shut him down and said, 'That's it. You're going to throw in two days.'"
He threw a 10-pitch inning the next game, Livin said, and everything was 95 mph and up.
"It was like a man versus children," he said. "I'd never seen anybody make a jump like Clay did."
Scouts soon followed, including from the Red Sox, who made Buchholz their first-round Draft pick in 2005. Buchholz lost the shortstop competition, but he was the highest-touted hurler on a staff that came within a game of the NJCAA World Series. Tomlin was the third starter.
"He was an All-American that year," Tomlin said, "so he was probably a better all-around player. But I think he got All-American for pitching, not hitting."
Two years later, Buchholz was in Boston for his Major League debut, making history with a no-hitter in his second start.
"If Josh wasn't around, he would've been a shortstop," Livin said. "The irony was how those two guys, through the competition, made each other better."
The path was longer for Tomlin, who threw more pitches but not as hard. He was an 11th-round Draft pick of the Padres in 2005, but went on to Texas Tech for a season. The Indians drafted him in the 19th round the following year, then watched him claw up their system before outpitching CC Sabathia in his Major League debut in 2010. Neither Tommy John surgery in 2012 nor shoulder surgery a few years later could stop him.
"He's a competitor," Buchholz said. "Obviously you can look at his charts. He's not going to overpower you. He's a very good command-control pitcher, can cut, sink the ball, has a good curveball and he's had that ever since I first met him."
Their competition, meanwhile, grew into a friendship.
"We talk to each other every offseason," Tomlin said. "We have been back to Angelina and talked to coach and worked out and threw with him. But other than that, it's just kind of a friendly text back and forth. When we play each other, we hang out, go eat lunch or something like that."
Their coach, meanwhile, sits back and marvels. Livin will not be at Fenway, but he'll be watching on television from home -- and he will be glad to not be coaching.
"You know what I want," he said. "I want a scoreless game for seven innings, and let the bullpens decide the fate, and let those two have a cold drink. I hope this is the quickest, least offensive game of the playoffs."