Takeaways: Buch on Lackey bandwagon

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Takeaways from the Jet, where you might think it simplistic, but coming from Clay Buchholz, it sounded just about right Saturday:

"It feels good to feel good," the Red Sox right-hander said after yet another strong spring outing Saturday, 5 1/3 innings in which the only run he allowed came on a home run by Pittsburgh's Garrett Jones during a 5-3 Pirates win.

Buchholz, who will throttle down in his final spring outing Thursday here against the Twins, threw 88 pitches, striking out five and walking one.

After falling behind the other starters early in camp with a mild hamstring strain, Buchholz went at least five innings in each of his last two turns and has an 0.96 ERA (2 ER in 18 2/3 innings) to show for his spring work.

I'll throw in the usual disclaimer about not putting too much stock in spring numbers, although maybe there was one number in Buchholz's spring last year that might have been a harbinger to his slow start: He gave up five home runs in 20 2/3 innings in Florida. The number of home runs doubled to 10 in 32 2/3 innings through his first six starts last season, a big reason for his ghastly 9.09 ERA on May 6.

No one wants to hear this, but there were times during that stretch in which Buchholz actually pitched quite well, but he paid dearly for every mistake. Throw in some bad luck and shaken confidence, and the unhappy outcomes multiplied before he finally righted himself.

He hopes to author a different opening chapter this season, with the intention of refining his changeup a little more between now and his first start, presumably scheduled for April 3 in New York against the Yankees.

"The changeup's not quite there," he said, "but I threw a bunch of good ones today."

While he is pleased with his own progress, Buchholz might even be happier for John Lackey, who may be embarking on one of the most remarkable transformations by a Red Sox player in recent years, from pariah to centerpiece.

Don't laugh. A scout who has tracked Lackey since he was in Class A ball said this spring's version of Lackey is the best he has seen since the early years.

"Look at the body; he looks like he's still in junior college," the scout marveled.

When the scout's comments were relayed to Buchholz, he nodded.

"He looks free, like his whole delivery is free and easy," Buchholz said. "You don't see that cringe when he lets go of the ball knowing that whatever pitch he throws, it's going to hurt.

"I've never been in that situation -- knock on wood -- but I can't imagine it hurting every time I throw the ball 100 to 110 times every five days."

Lackey underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery on Nov. 1, 2011, meaning that on Opening Day, it will be exactly 17 months since he underwent the procedure. That is on the outer range of the amount of time required for full recovery; for example, Mike Pelfrey is in Twins camp bidding for a job, and April 1 will mark just 11 months since he had surgery.

There are hurdles still to be cleared for Lackey, especially as he extends his outings, but the early returns have been promising.

"Everybody is talking about Lester and Buchholz," Buchholz said, "but Lack and Demp [Ryan Dempster] are a couple of pitchers who have had great careers.

"I hope people can swallow their pride a little bit and get over their idea that Lack is a bum, the way they've looked at him the last couple of years. He didn't throw a single pitch last year, and he still was dealing with negative stuff."

The most extreme example of that came in August, when Lackey was called out by a website for carrying two beers out of the clubhouse after a game in Cleveland, even though he was not playing and the Red Sox had no rules against having beer in the clubhouse on the road.

The report also mocked Lackey for going on the road to rehab with the club, even though Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement stipulates a rehabbing player can do so at home or on the road and a player must give written permission to a team before he can be sent to the team's spring training facility for more than 20 days of rehab.

In short, Lackey was engaged in behavior well within accepted limits, but because he had already built up a backlog of negativity stemming from poor performances, combative behavior and a messy personal life, he remained a convenient target.

But this spring, all the elements for an altered perception are there: He is healthy and pitching well, his personal life is no longer occupying the gossip columns, and he has jettisoned much of the hostility from his dealings with the media.

"It's a lot easier for him to be that way now," Buchholz said, "without all the negative stuff. People have their opinions. But it's awesome to see him smiling and cutting up, having fun. He's an awesome guy."

And there's little doubt, Buchholz agrees, that the extreme physical makeover Lackey has undergone, dropping anywhere from 17 to 40 pounds, depending on who is making the estimate, has made a huge difference. Manager John Farrell said the trimmed-down Lackey has given him much greater command of the strike zone.

"People wouldn't believe it was him if they just saw him on TV," Buchholz said. "He did a tremendous amount of hard work. I know in the offseason, he was in Arizona and I was in Texas, so I was an hour ahead time-wise, but when I'd be going to work out, he'd be just leaving."

Buchholz doesn't mind the fact that, after last season, people have low expectations of this rotation. But they may be in for a big surprise.

"It's going to be fun," he said.