FORT MYERS, Fla. — On the day the Red Sox were leaving their spring-training headquarters, a young pitcher named Clay Buchholz took the mound and got Manager Terry Francona’s attention.

“There’s a lot to like,” Francona said. “He commands. He’s athletic. He’s got poise.”

That was March 29, 2007. Buchholz came up from minor-league camp for one start, then returned to the Portland Sea Dogs.

Four years later to the day, with bags packed and equipment boxed up, Buchholz again started Boston’s last game in Fort Myers, Fla. He gave up one hit and one run in four innings, finishing a satisfying spring training.

“I don’t think there’s anything we’re not pleased with,” Francona said. “Whether he gives up runs in the spring or not, he’s getting ready to embark on a long year, where he’s expected to hopefully pitch about 200 innings.”

Lofty expectations, but an attainable goal that shows how far Buchholz has come.

That 2007 season began with domination in Portland (7-2, 1.77 ERA), then a bittersweet end in the majors – pitching a no-hitter but then being scratched from the playoff roster because his shoulder was too weak.

Two inconsistent seasons followed – a combined 9-13 record and 5.36 ERA over 32 games.

Coming into last year’s spring training, Buchholz was one of the six starters and there was talk he might go to the bullpen.

Instead, Buchholz started and established himself with a 17-7 record and a 2.33 ERA.

This spring training finally allowed Buchholz to relax.

“It was a completely different feeling coming in, knowing what I wanted to do rather than what I had to do,” Buchholz said. “Every time out, I didn’t have to gain the trust of anybody. It was to go out and do my job.

“In years past, it was trying to go out and showcase. This year my main focus was to work on my pitches and different situations. It feels good.”

And if Buchholz feels good, the Red Sox feel good. In the best-case scenario, Buchholz will be Boston’s No. 3 pitcher behind Jon Lester and a rebounding Josh Beckett.

Such a scenario could land Boston in the World Series.

“Expectations are going to be high, especially with the new guys we got,” Buchholz said. “I think everyone is expecting us to go out and be the No. 1 team in our division and try to compete for a championship in October.”

Buchholz came away Tuesday with some good and bad to ponder. He looked crisp most of the time, allowing only one hit. But he walked two and his pitch count rose to 78 (44 strikes) in only four innings, prompting an early exit.

“They had a couple of good at-bats where they laid off some good pitches or fouled off good pitches and got deep in the count,” Buchholz said.

Asked if he could go into the seventh inning for his first regular-season start Sunday in Texas, Buchholz looked surprised at the question.

“Oh sure. I feel strong,” he said.

That’s what Francona is counting on. Buchholz racked up 173 innings in 28 starts last year. More will be expected of him in 2011.

“He’s matured a lot,” Francona said. “He’s stronger. All the things we talked to him about four years ago (when) we couldn’t use him because his shoulder wasn’t strong enough. He’s taken care of that.”

And now Buchholz will break camp, years from his Portland prospect days, ready to be an established elite pitcher on a championship team.

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: [email protected]