FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In demeanor, there is little question that Clay Buchholz has been a different pitcher this spring than he was in 2008. Last year, team officials were disconcerted by the constant pick-off throws to first made by Buchholz (a pitcher whose quick time to the plate already allows him to hold runners well), a sign of his confusion while on the hill.
This spring, Buchholz has been more assertive on the mound. He is less hesitant and more certain of himself, a fact perhaps best indicated by his willingness to shake off catcher Jason Varitek unless and until he sees the right fingers calling for the pitch that he wants to throw.
One sign that Buchholz has been waiting for with some frequency is the two-seam fastball. It is a pitch that Buchholz says he used in the past, but with little conviction or effect.
Not so this spring. Buchholz has been attacking both left-handers and right-handers with the pitch, and he’s been using it to both sides of the plate. The result has been a healthy diet of ground balls thus far this spring. He has recorded almost two groundouts (19) for every fly out (10) this spring, up more than 40 percent from his 1.34:1 rate of groundouts to fly outs last year.
“It’s an exponentially bigger groundball ratio than I had last year,” said Buchholz. “I’ve been probably throwing (the two-seamer) 90 percent of the time this year, just spotting up and making it move back on the outside corner of the plate to a right-hander or front-door to a left-hander. It’s been a good pitch for me. If I can have that pitch and throw that whenever I want, I think I’ll be a lot better off than I was last year.
“(Before),” Buchholz said, “I said I threw a two-seamer, but I don’t even know if it did anything. That’s a pitch that everybody throws. Now I can actually see why it’s different than a four-seam fastball. You could see the lesser amount of seams on the ball when I threw it, but now it’s like, when I let it go, I can feel it and see it on the outcome.”
In Friday’s start against the Pirates, Buchholz worked five innings, allowed one unearned run on three hits and a walk while striking out three. He worked with the benefit of a sharp changeup, which he used to record all three strikeouts, and recorded six groundball and six flyball outs. In a sign of his improved pitch efficiency this spring, he needed just 70 pitches to get through the five innings.
Though Buchholz is now embracing the potential of his sinking two-seamer, he has not leaned on close friend Justin Masterson for advice with the pitch. That is because Masterson’s video-game sinker is in a class of its own.
“His two-seamer is ridiculous,” said Buchholz. “Mine moves six inches. His moves 60 inches. It’s ridiculous how much his ball moves like that.”
Nonetheless, even a few inches of sink can be of huge benefit to the 24-year-old Buchholz. The pay-off may not be early in the regular season, but Buchholz seems confident that it will come at the major-league level in 2009.
“I’m sort of the odd man out (of the rotation) right now. But I’m going to roll with them and hopefully come out of spring training with a spot,” said Buchholz. “Whenever I get the opportunity, I’m going to make the best of it and let the chips fall where they may.”
PEDROIA CUTS LOOSE
The most telling sign came on a couple of foul balls pulled down the third base line. There was nothing tentative about Dustin Pedroia’s swing on those two pitches. In his first game back in the Sox lineup since suffering a lower left abdominal strain as last Saturday, the swing from his heels – no longer a target of criticism in the Red Sox second baseman’s game – offered as promising a sign as Boston had on Friday.
“We all saw those big swings,” said bench coach Brad Mills, serving as manager for the day while Terry Francona traveled to his son Nick’s graduation from U.S. Marine Corps Officer Training School. “If he felt he could swing like that, he must be feeling pretty good.”
The 2008 American League MVP batted twice on Friday, collecting an infield hit and RBI groundout in two at-bats while having no problems either running or in the field. All signs were reassuring for the second baseman, particularly on the foul balls.
“That last at-bat, I tried to swing normally,” Pedroia said. “My first at-bat, I was kind of swinging softly a little bit. But I fouled a couple pitches off, I swung hard and I felt okay. Then I got the hit, and I felt fine running. It’s a good day. I’m glad to get out there and continue to get better.”
That said, Pedroia suggested that the key test will come on Saturday morning, when he wakes up and sees whether he is experiencing normal soreness or something more. If there is no abnormal pain, he will likely be in the clear, which would mean another game for him on Sunday and presumably a relatively regular turn in the lineup going forward this spring.
“The biggest thing is to see how I feel (Saturday), if I’m not sore or anything like that,” said Pedroia. “(We’ll) see how it feels, hopefully I’m not sore, hopefully Sunday I can get out there and play again.”
Pedroia insists that he was not the only one who avoided significant injury when he left the World Baseball Classic at the first sign of injury. Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is slated to pitch against Team USA this weekend, may have also avoided damage with Pedroia back in the Grapefruit League.
“Daisuke’s lucky I’m not there. I’d hit a line drive right off his back,” said Pedroia. “You guys can put that in your papers: I’d hit a line drive right off his back. He’d better hope that the Red Sox don’t trade him.”
DREW AVOIDS DAMAGE
For a half-inning, the exhibition game between the Pirates and Red Sox seemed less baseball than dodgeball. Pirates reliever Donnie Veal, a Rule 5 draftee, was completely unable to locate, creating something of a menace for Boston’s batters. David Ortiz had to duck out of the way on a pitch up-and-in. So, too, did Jason Bay.
J.D. Drew proved less elusive. A Veal pitch sailed inside and squared Drew on the bottom of his right hand, just above the knob of the bat. He was lifted from the game in favor of a pinch-runner and had to be taken for X-rays. The X-Rays came back negative, with the Sox offering the diagnosis of a contusion.
“He just expressed that he wasn’t real thrilled with getting hit,” said Mills. “The way he talked, his actions, were hurt.”
The Sox are no doubt relieved by the diagnosis, since Drew has lost significant time in his career to hand and wrist injuries. With the Dodgers in 2005, he was sidelined for the final three months after his left wrist was broken by a Brad Halsey pitch. In 2001, he missed six weeks after his right little finger was broken by a David Wells pitch.
Drew’s replacement in the lineup, Bubba Bell, was also hit by a pitch on the outside of the right ankle. Though Bell left on crutches, X-rays were negative, and the outfielder expects to be fine.
PUZZLING ABOUT PAPELBON
A report on the website of the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted a scout who watched Jonathan Papelbon and wondered whether he was registering diminished velocity this spring due to a shoulder injury. After Papelbon’s up-and-down outing on Friday against the Pirates (1 inning, 3 hits, 1 walk, 2 earned runs, 3 strikeouts), pitching coach John Farrell said there was nothing to such suggestions.
“There’s nothing as far as that’s concerned,” said Farrell.
Farrell said that Papelbon’s velocity has been a consistent 93-95 mph this spring, despite the fact that the closer is entering in the middle innings of day games, without the adrenaline rush that is customary in his regular season role. The pitching coach also said that Papelbon is working on specific aspects of his game — the tempo of his delivery, a slide step and a quickened leg kick with runners on base, the development of a slider — all of which he’s “executing very well.”
Farrell expressed no alarm about his pitcher’s outing on Friday, despite the messy line score.
“He got two fastballs over the middle of the plate for hits and a slider that stayed inside the base for two runs. I think he looks strong, yet he’s also getting his work in,” said Farrell. “I thought he threw the ball well. The three hits and two runs certainly aren’t the outcome that we are looking for or that he will see, but right now he is very much in the min frame of getting ready for the season, getting his work in.
“There’s a totally different adrenaline rush pitching in the fifth and sixth inning than there is the ninth. There are no concerns when it comes to that,” said Farrell. “You look at the shape of the pitches, you look at the velocity to measure arm strength, which are all consistent. I thought his slider, this spring, has come along well. There’s depth to his split.”
A scout at the game said that he had Papelbon at 93 mph on Friday, and did not seem to think anything was amiss after the Sox closer’s performance. “Spring training,” he shrugged.
THE CAPTAIN GETS MIGHTY
For the second time in as many games, Jason Varitek crushed a homer to right field while batting from the left side of the plate. Facing Pirates starter Jeff Karstens, who was struggling to locate, Varitek jumped on a fastball down the pipe and lined it into the right-field bleachers.
The event was noteworthy, given that Varitek hit just two left-handed homers in the final 113 games of the regular season last year, and none in the final 36 games of the regular season. (He did, however, hit a left-handed homer in the postseason.) …
Kevin Youkilis, who is wearing a protective boot for his sprained left ankle and Achilles tendinitis, is “still a little sensitive to the touch,” according to Mills. That sensitivity must subside before he can resume full baseball activities. …
John Smoltz remains scheduled to throw a bullpen session, his first of the spring, on March 25. Brad Penny is still on target to start a major-league spring raining game on Monday. …
Pitching coach John Farrell’s son, Jeremy, was part of the Pirates’ traveling roster. The third baseman went 0-for-1 with a line out to right field. John Farrell, who hadn’t seen his son play since 2006, was understandably proud.
“There's certainly an internal emotion that starts to run through you," John Farrell said. "There's so many memories that start to flash in front of your mind, particularly the first time you see him. It is an emotional rush to see him in that moment."
Jeremy Farrell was selected out of the University of Virginia in the eighth round of last year’s draft. He hit .287 with a .351 OBP and .381 slugging mark in Short-Season A-ball last year, and is making his second trip in major-league exhibition games this spring, following a plate appearance (a walk) against the Yankees. The third baseman is slated to start the year in the Pirates’ Low-A affiliate in West Virginia.