Clay Buchholz focused on health

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There was a time earlier in his career when Boston Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz would arrive at spring training, step onto the mound and simply Nuke LaLoosh his pitches.

The right-hander could unleash any pitch he wanted at 100 percent and feel confident and healthy. Now 29, Buchholz can't just reach back and deliver, especially at this point of the year.

After dealing with injuries last season and a shorter offseason due to the Sox's World Series victory, Buchholz tweaked his routine this winter and did not throw as much as he normally does before spring training. His strength and conditioning training remained the same, but his throwing program was a lot lighter.

He did not throw any bullpen sessions and only began playing long toss two weeks before arriving at camp. On Sunday, he tossed his first live batting practice session of the spring and was encouraged by the results.

"I feel as normal as I've felt in a long time right now," he said.

Buchholz wants to be, and needs to be, more durable than he was last season. He's never reached the 200-inning mark or made 30 starts in a season at the big league level.

Since making his major league debut in 2007, Buchholz has dealt with injuries every year. Pitchers are never going to be 100 percent during the course of the season, but he seems to be cursed by the injury bug more than others.

Before landing on the disabled list last June, Buchholz was in the midst of his best season. He won his first six starts and worked his record to 9-0 before suffering a shoulder injury. He made only eight starts after June 8, missing 82 games on the DL.

"We're very hopeful he lasts the entire season," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "Right now he's in with every other pitcher, in terms of his throwing days and his progression to [live] batting practice today. Everything he dealt with from a physical standpoint last year, he addressed in the offseason and his shoulder strength is very good, so we're looking forward to another productive year from Clay."

Farrell will meet with each player during spring training and outline goals for the season. With Buchholz, it's all about building and maintaining strength, and making sure the four days between starts are productive.

"I'll do whatever they want," Buchholz said. "Our medical staff and training staff are trying to find different ways to keep us going throughout the whole season, and every year there's something new that we do. It's whatever fits the piece of the puzzle, and it's probably going to be a little give and take, as far as what you're comfortable with, too. I'm open to anything."

There's no denying Buchholz's ability when he's healthy. He's a gifted pitcher who can do things with a baseball that not many in the big leagues can. But shoulder and back injuries have hampered his ability to become a truly great pitcher.

He's also learning now he needs to focus more on command than velocity.

"It's hard to think that way when you're out there trying to compete and get guys out," he said. "That was the first time in my life I was actually not going out there trying to throw every pitch as hard as I could."

That was evident in the postseason last October. Due to continued shoulder issues, he was bumped down in the rotation. He was in so much discomfort he could barely play catch. Still, he was given the opportunity to start Game 4 of the World Series against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

He would not be denied his opportunity to finally pitch in a World Series.

"I was going to do it, regardless of how I felt," Buchholz said. "You never know when you're going to get an opportunity to be in that position again. I wouldn't have been able to sleep at night, knowing I didn't go out there and at least try. It actually ended up being a lot better than I was expecting, especially with the way it felt the day before and the day before that."

His plan was simple: Just go out there and give his team a chance to win.

Buchholz tossed four innings and allowed one run on three hits, with three walks and two strikeouts. It was a gutsy performance and helped the Red Sox to a 4-2 win that tied the series at two games apiece.

Buchholz's numbers from the abbreviated season in 2013 are impressive. He finished with a 12-1 record, a 1.74 ERA and reached 108 ⅓ innings of work. If he can finally put together a full season without spending time on the DL, it could be something special.

"If the number of innings pitched this year are equivalent, or anywhere close to the way he's performed when he's [healthy], as we've come to know Clay, I'm not saying it's got to be to the 1.74 ERA of a year ago, but this is a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher," Farrell said. "For him to put in a 32-start year for us and be out there for an appropriate number of innings, he has a chance to make a huge impact on this team."

Throwing 200 innings is a lofty goal for Buchholz, and if he doesn't reach that mark it will be no big deal. More important is maintaining his shoulder strength and keeping his back strong.

"I know he's doing everything he can to do it and accomplish that," Farrell said. "He's settled into a very good routine again this spring, so far. And given the challenges he's had to face, he's getting more aware of what his body's needs are and really how to maintain the durability."