Last August, after a start in Chicago in which he surrendered five runs in just three innings, Clay Buchholz confessed to his father.
"I can't wait for this season to be over," the Red Sox hurler said.
Now, Buchholz probably wishes it would go on forever. The longer the campaign, you see, the more chances he might get to experience moments like the one that came around Friday night in Toronto.
In his first major league outing since allowing five runs in 2 1/3 innings in Baltimore last Aug. 20, Buchholz displayed the same confidence and resolve which started with a Feb. 21 batting practice session in Fort Myers and hadn't stopped since.
Against the Blue Jays, the 24-year-old allowed just one run on four hits, striking out three and walking three while throwing 103 pitches over 5 2/3 innings win what turned out to be a 4-1 win at the Rogers Centre. (Click here for a game recap.)
"It feels like about three years ago," Buchholz told reporters before being optioned back to Triple A Pawtucket. "It was a good feeling. It's good to be back up here and be able to have the confidence coming into this game and leaving with the same confidence I came into the game with. It's a good thing."
He started with a 93 mph changeup to Blue Jays Marco Scutaro, placing it right in catcher Jason Varitek's mitt, and didn't let up from there, weaving in changeups and curveballs. It was, however, that heater -- more specifically the command of the pitch -- which has meant a world of difference for Buchholz.
Last season the Red Sox sent Buchholz down to Pawtucket to experiment with an alteration of his arm angle in hopes of developing better fastball command. It didn't take, and the righty was never able to find any sort of groove for the rest of the '08 season.
This spring Buchholz showed up displaying his old, over-the-top delivery, which clearly has left the pitcher with more confidence from the get-go this season.
"We changed it last year because me and a couple of others started panicking a little bit," Buchholz said back in spring training. "The organization wanted to give me as good a chance to get to the big leagues as possible. It feels more normal, I guess."
The improved fastball command -- along with a revamped slider he didn't break out until after spring training -- has left quite an impression on all who have come in Buchholz' path. Triple A hitters couldn't figure him out (7-2, 2.36 ERA, .188 batting average against), and now big leaguers are following suit.
It's why the Red Sox, despite Buchholz' bumps in the road last season, told Texas that they would not be using the pitcher to acquire catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. And, Friday night at least, the decision paid off.
"He was awesome," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia told MLB.com. "He threw every pitch in any count. You could tell he was frustrating those guys. Plus, he's got 95 [mph], too. His stuff -- he's got four quality pitches. When he throws them for strikes and commands them, he's pretty tough to beat."
Of course, there a lot more we learned Friday other than Buchholz' viability...
WHY BUCHHOLZ WAS IN TORONTO
Roy Halladay is still a member of the Blue Jays, even after the impression left by one of the names thrown out as a potential piece in any deal involving the Sox and Jays. That should come as no surprise.
Buchholz was not at the Rogers Centre because the Red Sox had to show the Jays what they might be missing. He was there to showcase something else -- a flexibility few organizations can stake claim to.
With the presence of Buchholz the Red Sox were able to allow their pitchers to get their legs under them heading into the second half, starting with Brad Penny's outing Saturday afternoon.
"It's tough to get all your work on this All-Star break. It's nice to think you're going to go home and throw a bullpen, but that's not realistic," said Red Sox starter Josh Beckett, who is slated to pitch Tuesday.
"I think what Tito wanted to do was that he didn't want any of us to start that first day back. I'm not saying Clay didn't deserve it, but he didn't want any of us to pitch that first day. You have to pitch that day, you didn't throw bullpens, you didn't get your work it, it's just tough. It's nice to think, 'You're going to here and lift legs and everything', it's just tough. With Clay being our safety valve and him deserving this shot, he just said 'Let's just do it".
As for Halladay, listening to Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, it sounds as if the cost of surrendering the likes of Buchholz -- and others in the organization like him -- might be a cost the Sox aren't prepared to pay.
"It's always tempting, but it always comes a great cost," Epstein told reporters, talking in generalities regarding major trades before the non-waiver trade deadline, not specifically about Halladay. "When you do it through the free agent market, it comes at a tremendous risk in terms of the years and dollars you have to spend, and if you do it through trade, it comes at tremendous cost -- your best and most promising prospects -- the core of your organization in a lot of ways."
ABOUT THOSE FREE AGENTS
Julio Lugo's stint with the Red Sox started bad and never truly straightened itself out.
The shortstop, who was designated for assignment Friday morning, had conducted his introductory press conference in the midst of battling a stomach parasite that left him significantly lighter than normal. The weakness evidently took a toll... but that was just the beginning.
"It started out poorly from before Day One," Epstein told reporters. "He called us over the winder after we signed him and he said he had a sickness or a stomach issue, a pretty bad issue, where he lost like 15 pounds. When he showed up, he lacked a lot of strength and some quickness, but particularly the strength, it was gone. [That] got him off on the wrong foot and was never with us the player that he was in Tampa Bay.
"We tried a lot of things to get the best out of him. We did win a World Series with him as our everyday shortstop and he did make a lot of contributions to that world championship. that's not to be lost in the m ix, but, obviously, we'd be fudging the truth to say it worked out the way we envisioned it. [He] just never got on track here. [He] never really got locked in and comfortable and never played even close to the way we expected."
The Red Sox expected a lot.
Having eyed Lugo for some time -- almost originally acquiring him in a deal following the 2005 season that ultimately turned into the Edgar Renteria-for-Andy Marte trade -- the Sox saw him as an offensive threat.
The Red Sox chalked up Lugo's struggles with the Dodgers in the second half of the '06 season (.219, .278 on-base percentage) to the player feeling out of sorts having been asked to play multiple positions in a new environment. The organization also felt that the fact Lugo made 49 errors from 2004-05 (the second-most over that time in the majors) was a product of his range more than anything.
He was going to be a much-needed leadoff hitter, who could duplicate his 39 stolen-base, .362 on-base percentage season of '05. That never happened.
With the Red Sox, Lugo would man the lineup's ninth spot (126 games) more than the leadoff position (91 games). And when he did hit first his on-base percentage was a lowly .300, while striking out 62 times compared to 37 walks.
Defensively, Lugo's struggles got progressively worse over his time with the Red Sox. In Tampa Bay, a good amount of his errors came on throws because of poor footwork. First, the shortstop grew resistant to some of the changes the Sox coaches wanted him to make, and then Lugo's problems morphed from his arm to his glove.
Lugo clearly lost confidence in his glovework, which ultimately led to a fielding percentage (.957) that was 25th among starting shortstops over the three seasons he was with the Red Sox.
All of it reaffirmed a notion that Epstein has become increasingly vocal about in the last few years -- building through free agency is a dangerous proposition.
"When you dabble in free agency, sometimes these things happen. That's kind of the nature of the beat," said the GM, who has had 19 players man shortstop since 2004. "We're trying to grow the organization to the point where we don't have to ever get a free agent. We're probably closer to that point now then we were two or three offseasons ago. It's a lesson learned for sure."
BUT WHAT ABOUT BAY
Jason Bay is looking for something close to what J.D. Drew makes annually ($14 million). The Red Sox aren't prepared to currently give him that, at least for the three or four-year span the outfielder would prefer.
So, with nearly a month of talks in the rear-view mirror, Epstein executed a similar declaration as he had at the end of spring training -- volunteering the information that the Red Sox and Bay were tabling talks for the remainder of the season.
The focus now will be on the season, and then a 15-day exclusive negotiating period following the last game prior to Bay potentially hitting free agency.
"I'm in no position to say I want to file for free agency and see what's out there," Bay told reporters. "I'd still love to get something done here. I've made that kind of known. I like it here. That being said, we basically at this point don't want it to be an ongoing distraction for both of us -- coming to the field and answering contract questions. There's a big window at the end of the year after the season to sit down and try to hammer something out again. The way things have gone so far, I'm very encouraged with that."
SIGNS OF OPTIMISM
Mike Lowell feels better than he has in some time -- as his two hits against the Jays might suggest, and Daniel Bard continues to show signs of being Jonathan Papelbon circa '05, or a '08 version of Justin Masterson.
As for Lowell, he returned from the 15-day disabled list in fine fashion, jumping back into the lineup for the first time since June 25 and looking like the player who hit .310 in April and .307 in May.
"I think I feel better than two months ago, to be honest with you," Lowell told reporters. "The stability is really good. I was able to get some work in over the break, which was nice, as well as some nice family time, so I think both things were accomplished. I'm just really excited. I feel good."
As for Bard, after his scoreless 1 1/3-inning outing Friday night, he has faced 12 batters at the Rogers Centre and struck out eight of them.
In five games in July Bard has allowed just one hit over 7 2/3 innings, striking out 15 and not walking a batter.
"Daniel Bard is maturing right in front of our eyes," Francona told reporters after the game.