Red Sox success hinges on play of Lester, Buchholz

Red Sox success hinges on play of Lester, Buchholz
March 18, 2013, 6:30 pm
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- For all the developments in camp -- the injuries to two projected everyday players, the emergence of Jackie Bradley Jr., the improved morale -- no single factor is more critical to the Red Sox' regular season than a return to form for the club's top two starters, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.
     
And if spring training results -- and more specifically, the last two days -- are any indication, the Sox have reason to feel better about 2013.
     
A day after Lester retired all 18 Tampa Bay Rays he faced, Buchholz followed with a strong five-inning outing against the Pittsburgh Pirates, allowing just one run on a solo homer from Neil Walker in a 4-3 Red Sox defeat.
     
The run was the first off Buchholz in Grapefruit League action this spring, and even if spring training results are notoriously misleading, Buchholz has been impressive this spring.
     
Manager John Farrell, who oversaw the best seasons of both Lester and Buchholz when he served as pitching coach from 2007-2010, has been, together with new pitching coach Juan Nieves, stressing the importance of keeping a quick pace on the mound.
     
"He's getting some results to reinforce the approach he's taken," said Farrell of Buchholz. "I think it just allows him to use his change of speeds that much more effectively with a quicker tempo and a chance to keep the game under control a little bit more and dictate that tempo to give him the upper hand. And he's doing it in a way that looks awfully comfortable and natural for him.
     
"The more you can keep the game going, I think it keeps the hitter on the defensive a little bit more. When you have that much of a time span in between pitches, it can be more difficult to repeat the feel of certain pitches and the touch of secondary pitches. At the same time, the byproduct is to keep the hitter on the defensive, which is something we're seeing."
     
"Pace of the game is big for me," confirmed Buchholz. "That does a lot to help me. I don't have to go out there and think about anything. It's more, get the ball, get a pitch and throw it and take all the thinking out of it. It's been one of my problems that, whenever something hits the fan, I like to slow the game down and make sure I'm doing the right thing and sometimes that might hurt me more than help me."
     
In recent years, Jonathan Papelbon and Josh Beckett were two of the slowest pitchers in the game in terms of time between pitches and their presence may have contributed to Lester, Buchholz and others following suit.     

The arrival of Ryan Dempster, who works briskly, and the return to health by John Lackey, meanwhile, may have had the opposite effect.
     
It helps, too, that Buchholz isn't thinking about his back this spring, the way he was a year ago.
     
After suffering a stress fracture in his lower back in the middle of the 2011 season, Buchholz appeared tentative last spring, as if he was unconvinced that he could let go without fear of injury.
     
That mental block, in turn, prevented Buchholz from getting on top of the ball and finishing his pitches so that they remained down in the strike zone.
     
"Anybody that has an injury in the back of your mind . . . you might be fully healed, but you don't want to go out there and mess something up when it doesn't really count," said Buchholz. "That's sort of why I got off to a bad start. I didn't want to push myself that I was getting to the point where I was throwing 100-percent on every pitch. Now, I'm going out there knowing that I can hump on a pitch if I need to and not have to worry about anything.
     
"I definitely have a more clear head whenever I've been out there."
     
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who caught Buchholz Monday, said "without a doubt," he notices a difference in the righthander this spring.
     
"I don't know if he was thinking about (the back) before," said Saltalamacchia. "But when something's not right, you can tell and his pitches are finishing now. He's able to work both sides of the plate with all of his pitches and have some power behind them. I think his velocity is back up."
     
And with it, at least some optimism for the Red Sox regarding their rotation.

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