The top prospect in the Red Sox’ organization …
PORTLAND – Even when he was in the backyard playing catch with some buddies, Clay Buchholz was forbidden from throwing a curve ball by his father.
“Every time he saw me start trying to put any spin on the ball, he’d start yelling at me and tell me to quit,” the Portland Sea Dogs’ pitcher said.
Mr. Buchholz’s vigilance for his son’s arm didn’t keep him from developing a curve that Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler says is comparable to Josh Beckett’s. And it certainly didn’t inhibit the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Lumberton, Texas native from becoming one of the most touted pitching prospects in the Red Sox organization, if not all of baseball.
The subject of trade rumors, promotion speculation, and controversy (the manager of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats lashed out at his home fans who gave Buchholz a standing ovation during a recent start), the 22-year-old right-hander’s name is on the lips of virtually every Red Sox fan who has ever heard of him, whether they’ve seen him pitch or not.
Buchholz is dominating the Eastern League with a 6-2 record, a 1.79 ERA and 11 strikeouts and just 19 walks in 80.1 innings going into last night’s start against New Hampshire. Opposing batters are hitting .187 against him.
Next week, he’ll likely be named to the Eastern League All-Star team. At the end of the week, he’ll fly to San Francisco to take part in the All-Star Futures Game, a showcase of the top minor league talent the Sunday before the real All-Star Game.
“That should be a great experience,” Buchholz said. “I’m just going to go out there and have fun. I think that’s what it’s all about. You’re not going to make a club out there or if you have a terrible day I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference.”
What has made a big difference this year for Buchholz is spotting his fastball early in counts and in games. He throws a two-seam fastball and a four-seam fastball that is regularly in the mid-90s.
“It’s so much easier to pitch whenever you can get to strike one,” he said. “It’s all about getting strike one and locating your fastball. Then later in the game you can start throwing breaking balls first pitch or even change-ups and you can get the swings and misses it takes.”
He said his command of his off-speed pitches, which include the curve, slider and a circle-change, has improved, too. Another key has been finding his rhythm earlier on the mound. Last year at Single-A, he struggled early in starts (yet still managed to go 11-4). Teams that have had success against him this year have had it early, too, but they’ve been the fortunate few.
“I think it’s gotten a lot better. I’ve just been going out there and (concentrating on) getting batters out rather than throwing pitches,” he said. “If you get that first 1-2-3 inning, you’re sort of bouncing after that. It makes the tempo of the game go a lot quicker.”
The Red Sox picked Buchholz 42nd overall out of Angelina College in the June, 2005 draft with the supplemental pick they received after losing Pedro Martinez to free agency. Last year, he split time with Greenville and Wilmington in Single-A and was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Red Sox fans got their first glimpse of him this spring when he got some work with the big league squad during the exhibition schedule. Then a national television audience got to see him (actually, just a few highlights of him) when he faced Roger Clemens during one of the Rocket’s minor league comeback starts that was broadcast by ESPN.
Since then, the buzz has only grown louder. Most recently, his name was brought up when the Red Sox were rumored to be in the running for Chicago White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle. Buchholz just shrugs off the speculation, saying it’s part of being a minor leaguer.
“If somebody’s going to trade Buehrle straight-up for one guy and that guy happened to be me, that just tells you what the White Sox think,” he said. “It’s not a big distraction to me at all.”
Neither is talk of his inevitable promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket or perhaps even Boston.
“I’m happy where I’m at,” he said. “Promotions happen and they happen for a reason. If there’s no room, there’s no way you’re going to get promoted. More than one thing has to happen for somebody to go up or go down.”