DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz put together another impressive Grapefruit League outing Friday afternoon against the Blue Jays, retiring 11 straight batters to finish off four efficient, scoreless innings in Boston's 3-1 win at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
Buchholz threw three no-hit innings his last time out. So far this spring, he's given up only one run, five hits and two walks while striking out five in eight innings.
But for Buchholz, the issue isn't necessarily what he does when he's on the mound. It's whether he's healthy enough to be there in the first place.
"I think he's demonstrated when he's been on the mound it's well above-average Major League performance," Red Sox manager John Farrell said Friday. "He and everyone is well aware of doing everything that we can to maintain that durability, because you never want to cap or project what the performance would be, but we know darn well it's going to be an elite type of performance."
The 29-year-old right-hander proved exactly what Farrell was talking about over 12 outstanding starts to begin the 2013 season. From April 3 to June 8, he went 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 84 1/3 innings over 12 starts. Had he remained at that level over a full season, he would have been tough to argue against in the American League Cy Young Award debate.
Instead, Buchholz missed three months with shoulder and neck injuries. He came back in September, but by the time Game 4 of the World Series rolled around, his fastball wasn't clocking in at 92 or 93 mph. His shoulder issues left him maxing out in the high 80s.
So, Buchholz and the Red Sox entered the offseason with a choice: They could either have Buchholz work extra hard, build himself up and hope that was enough to keep him strong through the course of an entire season, or they could ease him into Spring Training, save some bullets early on and see how that affects him.
"We have taken the latter [approach]," Farrell said before Friday's game. "Not because we're looking at an anticipated number of innings and how do you shift that one way or the other. In talking with Clay, he felt like he did a lot of throwing in the offseason [last year], coming in at almost game-ready when camp opened up. But he might have hit a wall a little bit earlier than he normally would have. Jon Lester kind of felt the same way.
"Come the first of June, they kind of felt like they were going through a little bit of a down-swing or a dead-arm period. With the addition of another month of pitching, we just felt like the most obvious thing was, 'Let's delay things to allow some recovery to take place and build it up slowly.'"
So far, it's paid off. Buchholz said he hasn't experienced any physical issues this spring, and the early results have been encouraging. He was consistently hitting 91 and 92 mph on the radar gun Friday, and he felt like he could maintain that velocity -- and perhaps even reach back for more if necessary.
"I haven't had any setbacks physically, so I feel like I could go about every day just under a normal routine, normal schedule," Buchholz said. "Given the past couple months in my season, they knew coming out [I] wasn't exactly where I was at in the past years. They're keeping an eye on it, but like I've told them, I've felt fine."
More important than his velocity, Buchholz said, is the fact that his two- and four-seam fastballs were moving and hitting their spots against the Blue Jays. He struck out three Toronto hitters on Friday, including slugger Jose Bautista on a called third strike. The right-hander hasn't felt comfortable quite yet with his changeup, so he leaned heavily on his fastball, cutter and curveball as he worked through four innings on 55 pitches.
Farrell said Buchholz seems comfortable with his mechanics and delivery -- another encouraging sign -- and he has plenty of time left this spring to gain even more strength before the regular season begins. If everyone in the rotation stays healthy, Buchholz is slated to be Boston's No. 5 starter based on the way the Sox have their starters lined up.
"I'm not going to say I'm surprised, but it's very encouraging," Farrell said of Buchholz's velocity. "Last time out, he was 89-91. Today, he was 91-92 pretty consistently, so it shows you the arm strength is building, and in a matter of five days, there's been a sizable step forward in the overall action to all his pitches."
The hope is that Buchholz can put together a full, healthy season after taking those gradual steps forward this spring. Because if he's able to take the ball every fifth day, the Red Sox have reason to believe he can be, as Farrell put it, an elite starting pitcher.
"That's not going out on a limb," Farrell said. "That's just saying that's what he's proven when he's been out on the mound."