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Buchholz earns his stripes

Buchholz earns his stripes

BOSTON -- He cameo-ed, he saw and he conquered. Then, Clay Buchholz retreated among the bushes to continue being nurtured into a statesman of the next Red Sox Nation administration.

As much-anticipated debuts go, Buchholz's did not betray the hype. Around here, the introductions of high-profile prospects become near-religious experiences, and 36,686 pious observers at Fenway Park on Friday afternoon were not disappointed.

Three days past his 23rd birthday, Buchholz buzzed some fastballs, buckled some knees with his renowned breaking stuff, messed up timings with a mature changeup, got plenty of key outs and earned one big victory.

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Then, Buchholz was on his way back to Triple-A Pawtucket, having spent his one afternoon as a guest Major Leaguer and littering "The Fens" with his calling card.

In his six innings, Buchholz, who looks even younger than he is, allowed eight hits and three earned runs, while walking three and fanning five. Most importantly, the phenom earned an 8-4 win that helped the Red Sox keep the Angels in their place and helped themselves keep their distance from the Yankees in the American League East.

Buchholz played a prominent part in a long day of baseball that reaffirmed, for the umpteenth time, this game's unpredictability. It shaped up as a day-night of pitching mismatches, all right -- and both halves of the doubleheader disdained form.

The twin bill had a pair of 15-game winners take on a pair of young right-handers fresh off their Minor League shuttle. So naturally, the two underdogs won. First, Buchholz outshined John Lackey. Getting even for that, the Angels' Ervin Santana, who had pitched his way back to Triple-A Salt Lake for a month, trumped Josh Beckett in the nightcap.

The difference between them was that Santana, a 16-game winner last season, pitched his way out of the doghouse and will stick around. Until he returns, Buchholz's ears will be ringing with praise.

Buchholz drew raves from everyone, including someone who owned both the best view and the best perspective. Home-plate umpire Bruce Froemming, who is retiring after this season, his 37th in the Majors, dropped an interesting mix of names in comparison: J.R. Richard, Randy Jones and Nolan Ryan.

"It was nerve-wracking. Pretty much what I imagined it to be," Buchholz said. "It was the biggest moment in my life; a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I'll definitely remember this my whole life."

So, too, might everyone who witnessed it. You never know where these first impressions lead. The last genuine rookie -- discounting Japanese veteran Daisuke Matsuzaka earlier this season -- to win his Major League debut as a Boston starter was Juan Pena in 1999. Pena won exactly one more game in the big leagues.

But Buchholz's pedigree is solid. His repertoire, already, is even better.

"He competes. The game doesn't quicken up for him," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "He's got command of the fastball in and out, and he's got a potentially devastating offspeed pitch. He's an exciting young man."

Recruited to pitch in the doubleheader at the outset of a stretch of 10 consecutive playing days, Buchholz began his career by throwing five consecutive balls, drew a loud ovation for his first strike and brought the fans to their feet several times.

"I was thinking too much, instead of just throwing," Buchholz said of his erratic start. "There were a lot of nerves. I felt like I was doing everything wrong."

Even before taking the mound, Buchholz knew he'd be taking the train back to Pawtucket. He only wanted to know: could he take the Red Sox's offense back with him? In one inning, he got as many runs as he had in any Triple-A start, a plethora of runs that certainly smoothed any jitters that he might have felt in his first inning.

"Definitely, it's always nice to pitch with a big lead. It calmed my nerves a bit," Buchholz said of the long bottom of the first that went on and on and on for 46 Lackey pitches. "That gave me a chance to clear my head -- instead of having a 1-2-3 inning, then having to go right back out there."

Buchholz leads the Minors this season with 164 strikeouts (in 117 innings), and he gave glimpses into how he has done it: mostly with offspeed pitches which dove under the arcs of even experienced swings.

"His changeup is good now," said Francona of Buchholz. "At one point, he threw four in a row to some pretty good hitters."

That changeup, which Buchholz developed in the two years since his selection by Boston as the 42nd overall player taken in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, definitely drew the attention of Froemming.

"I'll tell you who he made me think of, and you'll laugh -- but [he reminded me of] Nolan Ryan," said Froemming, who has been around long enough to have called Ryan's pitches while he was still a New York Met. "In 1971, Ryan still had all kind of control problems. He was all over the place.

"He didn't become a really big winner until he developed a changeup. And this kid, [Buchholz], already has a pretty good one. Reminded me of Randy Jones, [the San Diego left-hander who earned the 1976 NL Cy Young Award], who had command right away. [Buchholz] has three, four pitches that are very effective."

Froemming paused and threw in another name.

"I don't know if I had J.R. Richard's first game, but I remember him as a young kid. He could throw 100 mph, but sometimes he'd throw it only 55 feet and it would bounce by his catcher, Cliff Johnson, and get me. It'd hurt like a son of a gun."

Perhaps pain was the common link that prompted the veteran arbiter to inject the former Astros pitcher into the conversation. In Friday afternoon's fifth inning, Froemming was clipped on the left shoulder by a foul tip off Jason Varitek's bat.

In a burst of compassion, Angels catcher Jeff Mathis paid a lengthy mound visit to reliever Chris Bootcheck, giving Froemming time to gather himself.

Back on the rubber, sidetracked by this interruption, Bootcheck flinched before his next pitch, and Froemming promptly ticketed him for a balk, his left arm feeling much better, thank you very much.

The AL West-leading Angels recovered as quickly in the nightcap, after their reliable bullpen had given up Santana's lead. By staging their own comeback rally against Eric Gagne, Boston's Plan B closer, for a 7-5 victory, the Angels won their first game of the season at Fenway Park after four lopsided losses.

The win also helped Angels manager Mike Scioscia get over the fact of having earlier seen his best starter get bested by Boston's guest starter.

"This guy looks like he's going to be good for a long time," Scioscia said of Buchholz. "I was very impressed with his changeup, and he's got life on the fastball, and he's got a good breaking ball."

Buchholz took the win, the props and the memories back with him to the PawSox Colony of Red Sox Nation.

"I got my feet wet," Buchholz said. "I hope I can come back in September and help out."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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