ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Before he picks up a baseball on most nights that he pitches, Clay Buchholz will pick up a guitar.
By then, Buchholz will have done everything else to prepare for his start. He will have read the scouting report, done his video study, thrown his side session and long toss, lifted his weights, met with his pitching coach and catcher.
Now, in the last hours before the game, he will sit in front of his locker, whether he is in Fenway or on the road, and reach for the instrument that has become as much a part of his routine as all the rest, and may be just as important, if not more so.
The guitar offers escape and refuge, comfort and calm, pleasure and a little bit of peace.
"I like it a lot,'' he says. "I'll be sitting here, and there will be people rushing around everywhere. It's a way to get away.''
In those moments before a game when he is playing, Buchholz agrees, it feels almost like being in a bubble, a place where he can relax without fear of intrusion. No one interrupts a music man.
Playing became part of his baseball life, he said, last season in Triple-A, when he was trying to put his career back together.
"It's helped me a lot,'' Buchholz said.
If playing the guitar helps Buchholz to pitch, the Sox might want to build him his own sound studio, like the one owner John W. Henry, another guitar player of note, built in his home in Boca Raton.
After beating the Tampa Bay Rays 6-1 on Monday night, Buchholz is 6-3 with a 3.07 ERA, a winner of five of his last six decisions. In his last three starts, Buchholz has allowed just four earned runs in 20 1/3 innings, while striking out 18 and holding hitters to a .197 average.
Monday night, Buchholz used a double-play ball to escape a bases-loaded jam in the first, then struck out Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria on devastating changeups with runners on second and third in the second.
"They made him work early in the first couple of innings -- there were base-runners all over the place,'' manager Terry Francona said. "He made some great pitches, and then he got so comfortable. Whether you call it a cutter or slider, especially to left-handed hitters, it allowed him to get back in the count, and get swings and misses. I'll bet he threw 30 or 35 of 'em, he had such a good feel for it.''
Francona's estimate was right on the mark. Buchholz threw 33 sliders, most with great effectiveness and command, as 25 went for strikes. Left-handed hitters saw a steady diet of sliders (21) and changeups (17), and his control was especially impressive when he fell behind in the count -- 17 of 20 pitches were strikes.
So what is it, a slider or cutter?
"It's both,'' Buchholz said. "Sometimes it's little, sometimes it's big. It's a pressure thing with my fingers. If I need it to throw a strike, I'll just throw it almost like a fastball. If I want to throw it as a swing and miss pitch, I'll throw it with a little more pressure from my middle finger. That gives it a little more bite, and it goes out of the zone. It's been a pretty good pitch for me the last couple times out.
"You want it to look like a fastball coming out of your hand. I worked on it a lot in spring training and the beginning of the season.''
Harnessing those pitches, finding the right focus and maintaining composure in the tightest of spots are all part of the growing process for Buchholz, still just 25. And the guitar, he says, has helped with the mental part of the game.
He's a self-taught player.
"I started playing my sophomore year in college,'' he said. "My roommate, he went to high school with me, he was one of those guys who was a jack of all trades. He could do everything -- guitar, drums. I picked up his guitar one day in our dorm room, we didn't have anything to do. I taught myself off the Internet.
"I don't really remember chords. I pick out songs on the Internet, look at 'em, start playing 'em. Progressive stuff, mostly.''
It helps, too, that Buchholz pitches on a team of guitar players. Tim Wakefield plays, and Buchholz made friends with some talented pros, like Cindy Bullens, the gifted singer-songwriter from Maine.
Daniel Bard. Jon Lester. Josh Beckett. And the one who may surprise you most, J.D. Drew, who is modest about his talents but can pick it pretty well, according to Buchholz, although you'll probably never catch Drew playing in public. "My father-in-law is really good,'' said Drew, who will play at family gatherings country songs, praise music and the like. "I broke my hand, and then the pinky finger, so it's tough to play certain chords.''
Usually at the ballpark, Buchholz says, he'll borrow Beckett's guitar to play.
"I give it to him if he wants to play it,'' Buchholz said, "but he has a Taylor 814. It's really nice.
"I have a Gibson Songwriter at the apartment. I have another one made out of different wood back in California. I got two really nice ones, two nice electrics, and I used to have a really nice acoustic, but it's all banged up now.''
Buchholz admits he has an in when it comes to purchasing his guitars: wife Lindsay's mother works for Musician's Friend, a huge supplier of instruments in Kansas City.
"You can get a Gibson anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000,'' he said. "The one I have is nice. My wife's mom gets 25 percent to 70 percent off guitars. We went out there last year in Kansas City. Lester and I signed some autographs for them and they gave us two great guitars. Pretty cool.''
Asked if he can carry a tune, Buchholz smiles. "Sometimes,'' he said. "Depends on what tune I'm trying to carry. There's only a select number of groups I sound like.''
He'd go to more concerts, he said, but most of the shows are during the summer, and his job doesn't afford him much chance to go.
"I got to catch Dave Matthews a couple of times,'' he said, "and in the offseason I went to a Foreigner concert.''
GM Theo Epstein is a big Pearl Jam fan (he tried to go to a show undetected last week, but somebody saw through the fake mustache), but no, Buchholz said, he hasn't had the chance to meet Eddie Vedder.
"He hasn't brought him around,'' Buchholz said. "Sean Casey got to meet him a couple of years ago.
"To me, I'm impressed with all of them. It's hard to do. I know some Texas country bands back home that people around here wouldn't know. It's more of a Southern thing, but they've all been really nice.
"It's just a real relaxed atmosphere,'' he said.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.