Clay Buchholz feels Chris Sale's pain, offers struggling Red Sox ace some advice


Chris Sale sounded lost after Sunday's mediocre start against the Toronto Blue Jays. Clay Buchholz knows the feeling.

The former Red Sox right-hander has experienced the slings, arrows, tridents, catapults, howitzers, and neutron bombs of struggling in Boston. He has also made the painful, identity-shaking transition from power pitcher to crafty pragmatist.

And after watching Sale surrender five runs in four innings and then admit, "I don't know if I've ever pitched like this in my life," Buchholz offered some perspective from both his time in Boston, and his own transformation.

"I think he still has it in there," Buchholz said. "He's thrown a lot of pitches over his career. I know he's a tough dude, but it's hard going out there and trying to pitch to 100 percent when you're only able to get 75 percent, and I've gone through that. It sucks. It's not fun. The results are under a microscope more than anything. When you're going out there with just a percentage of what you've built up to be, it's tough.

"It's a really mental game, and it can drive you insane."

Buchholz would know. He arrived in 2007 with a live arm and tons of promise, and in just his second start, he no-hit the Baltimore Orioles.

He rode the roller coaster from there, winning only two games in 2008, making his first All-Star team and finishing sixth in the Cy Young Award voting in 2010, and then posting a 1.74 ERA while going 12-1 in 2013, a season unfortunately curtailed by one of his many injuries.

He became a lightning rode with Red Sox fans who grew frustrated that the good times never seemed to last. He also managed to weather intense criticism by maintaining a chill, affable disposition, and as he nears his 35th birthday, he seems to have a good handle on his place in the game. He opened the season on the 10-day injured list and is slated to make his Blue Jays debut on Saturday vs. the Tampa Bay Rays.

"I've lived basically my whole baseball career with one thing in mind -- have a short memory of the good and the bad, knowing you're going to talk about both, but negative situations impact more people than positive ones," he said. "You've got to own up to it if it's on your shoulders, and a lot of times it was on me."

Buchholz's velocity peaked in 2009, when he had a fastball clocked at nearly 99 mph. The decline began in 2013, and he considers 2014 his last season with a truly plus heater. Thus began his reinvention, which culminated last year in one of his best seasons once he was healthy enough to take the mound. He went 7-2 with a 2.01 ERA in 16 starts with the Diamondbacks -- despite maxing out at 93 mph and sitting at 90-91 -- before an elbow injury shelved him.

"I've gotten to more of giving it 100 percent effort level, but maybe not max effort as far as ripping the ball and trying to throw every pitch as hard as I can," he said. "Last year, I relied on throwing it to a spot, rather than trying to drive it through a spot. It worked out a lot better for me. I never really felt stressed to have to do anything. My location was better, command was better, and I threw more innings per start last year than any year in my career.

"It just opened my eyes. You don't have to throw 95, 100 mph to get guys out. If you can keep guys off balance, that's really the name of the game. If you can induce early swings, weak contact, that's really the name of the game for a pitcher."

It's true that until leaving his final start last year during warmups, Buchholz had averaged nearly seven innings an outing (technically his second-best total, after 2013). He didn't do it by overpowering anyone, but by outthinking them, a concept which would've been hard to believe when Buchholz entered the league.

"I don't throw as hard as I used to, but I feel like now I'm actually a better pitcher," he said. "Just being able to know what I need to do, reading swings, knowing hitters' weaknesses, knowing my strengths on any given day and pitching to that rather than just looking at a lineup, flipping a coin, and throwing a pitch."

Sale isn't about to give up on the return of his overpowering velocity just yet. He actually showed slightly encouraging signs in that regard Tuesday, especially considering the cold, raw conditions, living more at 92-94 than 88-89.

Most pitchers, like Buchholz, must eventually make concessions to diminished pure stuff as they age. Of course, most of them didn't just sign five-year, $145 million extensions that don't even kick in until next season.

"I haven't talked to Sale or anybody about what he's going through, but it's a tough place to play when the results aren't in your favor all the time," Buchholz said. "I'm sure he's pretty stern with himself. He wants to perform, no matter what he's being paid."

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