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From no-hitter to the minors

August 31, 2008|Clarke Canfield | Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine -- Last Sept. 1, Clay Buchholz dazzled the baseball world by throwing a no-hitter for the Boston Red Sox in only his second major league start.

But heading into the anniversary of that feat, Buchholz is with the Portland Sea Dogs of the Double-A Eastern League. Portland plays its last regular-season game Monday.

"This is definitely a roller coaster for me," the 24-year-old Buchholz said before a recent Sea Dogs' game. "The adversity that came toward me this year started in spring training and never quit. It just pounded me all year."

Before this season, success came easily for Buchholz, who was a star at Angelina (Texas) Junior College and in the minor leagues before making his Red Sox debut last August.

Then he hurled his masterpiece -- a 10-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles, allowing four baserunners and retiring the final 11 batters.

He was only the third pitcher to throw a no-hitter in either his first or second big-league start. "It was a dream come true, and my life turned 180 degrees in one night," he said.

He ended the 2007 season with a 3-1 record, a 1.59 ERA and a World Series ring after the Red Sox swept Colorado. But Buchholz' fairy-tale start did a 180 the other way this year.

After a rough start to the season, he was sent to triple-A Pawtucket for almost two months to sharpen his skills in a less-stressful environment. Known for a curveball and a change-up that can freeze batters in their tracks, the right-hander worked on command of his fastball, which can top out at 96 mph.

After his return to the Red Sox in July, Manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell spent extra time with him to keep his confidence afloat.

But things only got worse, with six losses and no wins after his returning to the Sox. After going only 2 1/3 innings on Aug. 20 in an 11-6 loss to the Orioles, he was optioned to Portland. His record was 2-9 and his ERA had ballooned to 6.75.

Francona said Buchholz experienced "growing pains" and lost confidence. It didn't help that the Red Sox are in the middle of close races for the AL East and a wild-card playoff spot.

"I think sometimes when things aren't working at this level, teams really can make you pay," Francona said. "But at the same time, when it turns around and it clicks, it can be pretty good."

Buchholz has plenty of reminders of Fenway Park at Portland's Hadlock Field.

The left-field wall at Hadlock, known as the Maine Monster, is the same height -- 37 feet -- as Fenway's Green Monster. Replicas of Boston's iconic Citgo sign and Coke bottle are perched atop the wall. The cover photo on the Sea Dogs' media guide shows Buchholz in a Red Sox uniform being hoisted into the air by catcher Jason Varitek moments after completing his no-hitter.

In 2007, everything came easy and there was little pressure, Buchholz said. This year, nothing was easy and he put too much pressure on himself. He's hopeful the Sox call him up in September, but he'll do whatever the club asks of him.

"I can't say I blame them if they don't bring me back up this year, because I didn't do what I had to do this year," he said.

Farrell and Francona aren't giving up on Buchholz.

"The way we view him and how we value him hasn't changed," Farrell said. "The biggest thing for a player is to learn what their abilities are and what are their limits, and to make the adjustments with the lines."

Sea Dogs' pitching coach Mike Cather said Buchholz has improved since last year on his pitching strategy, pitch sequence and understanding of batters. Now he needs to learn to pick himself up when he gets down, he said.

"For all his struggles he's had this year, he's actually a better pitcher than he was last year," Cather said.

In his first start back with the Sea Dogs, Buchholz pitched seven strong innings, allowing five hits and four runs while striking out eight and walking none.

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