New ballgame for Buchholz

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When Clay Buchholz was finished with his first session of throwing live batting practice Thursday, a man who had been watching closely from behind the cage was there to greet the Red Sox right-hander when he came off the mound.

Jason Varitek, who was behind the plate when Buchholz threw a no-hitter in his second big league start in 2007, lightly tapped the pitcher on his chest with his fist, and with a half-smile exchanged a knowing glance.

"There were no words said,'' Buchholz said in the Sox clubhouse afterward. "'Tek, you can tell whenever he's not satisfied. There doesn't have to be a word spoken. And you can tell when he's satisfied with what he saw.''

There was no mistaking the message this time, either. Buchholz, who at 30 suddenly finds himself the senior member of a pitching rotation that will feature just one other 30-year-old (Justin Masterson) when the season starts April 6, is in a much better place than he was at this time a year ago.

And there's a surprising list of folks who have contributed to the difference: John Lackey, Brandon Workman, Roger Clemens and Skip Johnson, pitching coach at the University of Texas.

Lackey, who remains one of Buchholz's closest friends even after his trade last July to the Cardinals, and Workman regularly worked out with Buchholz at the University of Texas in Austin, where Workman was a second-team All-American, and a couple of Longhorns bullpen catchers made themselves available. Clemens, a UT star before signing with the Red Sox, showed up one day to watch Buchholz throw and talked to him afterward.

"There were some things I already knew,'' Buchholz said of his conversation with the Rocket, "but it's crazy when somebody tells you something you've been told for a long time, they say it a little differently and it sort of clicks in your head.

"I've always been a guy, when I get in trouble I rush and start drifting toward home plate and the ball comes out of my glove. Your pitches aren't going to work if your arm is late, and I was doing that a lot last year. Now I try and stay back over the rubber as long as I can.''

And Johnson, in his ninth year at UT, made a couple of small tweaks in Buchholz's delivery that are already paying dividends, the pitcher said.

"Skip helped me a lot with a couple of different minor things with my delivery,'' he said. "They helped me a lot. Just staying on a plane through the target, instead of falling off to the first-base side.''

Lou Merloni, the former Sox infielder and WEEI radio talk-show host, immediately noticed the difference in Buchholz on Thursday, and couldn't wait to talk to him about how much better he looked.

The uncertainty that held Buchholz in its thrall last season, after he finished the 2013 title run with a significantly diminished right shoulder, has given way to a conviction that he is fully healthy again. That is a hugely encouraging development for the Red Sox, who after losing Jon Lester and Lackey would welcome Buchholz bearing a greater resemblance to the guy who was the AL's most dominant pitcher in 2013 until he was hurt.

Prior to 2014, Buchholz had to abandon his normal throwing program in order to rest the shoulder. This winter? "I worked out with Lackey and Workman from just before Thanksgiving until I came down here early this month,'' Buchholz said.

"It's normal now,'' he said. "The offseason was like before 2010 and 2013. I didn't have anything lingering going into the offseason, so I could pick up when I needed to pick up rather than let everything heal and then be a couple of steps behind where I needed to be.''

It took a long time last season, Buchholz said, to be able to trust in his shoulder again.

"Last year, there were tons of different things, not just physically with the delivery but mentally,'' Buchholz said. "Not knowing what I was going to feel at certain times. I don't have any of that right now. I can just grip the ball and let the grip work.

"I didn't throw a whole lot last offseason just because of how I felt in the last game I pitched. Going through the season last year, every time I went out regardless of whether the start was good or bad, it gave me a little more confidence to let those thoughts get out of my head, because I was completely fine.''

But he struggled terribly through the end of May last season, when the Sox finally placed him on the disabled list with what the team called a hyperextended left knee, only because they needed a reason to give him a mental break from the doubts he was having about his shoulder. He hit bottom in Atlanta on May 26, when he walked eight and gave up four hits in just three innings, allowing six runs.

"That affects pitches, that affects command, that affects thoughts -- what pitch are you going to throw, what pitch are you comfortable with,'' Buchholz said of his fears about his shoulder. "The only two pitches I was comfortable with the first 2½ months of the season last year were my fastball and my cutter, and if my cutter isn't cutting, it's basically just another fastball. Sometimes I was battling with just one pitch.''

He returned June 25, and while there continued to be rough patches -- he was 7-11 with a 4.64 ERA in his last 18 starts -- there were enough encouraging signs (two complete-game shutouts and eight starts in which he went at least seven innings) to embrace a growing conviction that his shoulder was strong again.

"The last third of the season, all the games weren't what I wanted them to be, but I did throw two shutouts and went deep into a lot of games,'' he said. "I felt fine. That was good for me, you know, to clear my mind going into the offseason.''

That conviction grew only stronger over the winter, when he was reunited with Lackey, who staged a remarkable comeback from Tommy John surgery to become a dependable starter again.

"Me and him are real good friends,'' Buchholz said, "so it's easier for him to be critical of me and me not taking it the wrong way. It could be as simple as playing catch and saying, 'Stay behind it dude,' because you're pulling off and the ball is cutting and you don't want it cutting.'

"We have a really good relationship.''

But entering his ninth season in the big leagues, and no longer with the supporting presence of Lester and Lackey, Buchholz recognizes that he now bears a greater accountability. To date, he has not pitched a 200-inning season, a barometer of how dependable a pitcher is. He's come close a handful of times and would have reached that threshold last season if he hadn't shut it down for a month.

"I wouldn't call it pressure,'' he said. "I've been here long enough now, it's on my shoulders now. If I'm not doing something right, I should know how to [fix] it. I should be able to coach myself to a certain extent.

"But whenever you're not doing that, whenever you're grinding, it's hard. It's a hard game to comprehend when things aren't going right and you're not sure why. You need somebody every now and then to let you know what's going on and help you out.''

Clemens, Lackey and Johnson have done their part. And that look from Varitek on Thursday suggests the Red Sox have renewed confidence that Buchholz can do his.