Clay Buchholz didn’t even know if he was going to pitch this year.
After spending most of 2017 rehabbing from forearm surgery to repair the flexor tendon in his throwing arm — and then being released from a minor-league deal by the Kansas City Royals just five weeks into this season — Buchholz didn’t know what the future held.
But when a call came from the Diamondbacks in early May, the opportunity to join a playoff contender and reunite with his former coach in Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo proved to be a “blessing,” Buchholz said.
Buchholz may not be the same pitcher Lovullo knew during their time together with the Boston Red Sox from 2013-16, but the addition seems to be working out for the Diamondbacks, too, as the veteran right-hander appears to have shed the skin of his past inconsistencies.
“I think Clay has finally gotten to a point in his career where he’s realized the type of pitcher he needs to be,” Lovullo said. “I see it happening every single outing. I see him adapting to a game plan and I see him making adjustments to hitters in different ways. For me, that’s the definition of mental toughness in a pitcher.”
All things considered, Buchholz really hasn’t changed that much from his younger self. He’s still rail thin — weighing in at 190 pounds, which seems generous — and he’s still often in charge of whatever music is being played in the home clubhouse, as was the case in Boston.
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But the veteran right-hander has undergone significant changes from the 23-year-old that spun a no-hitter in just his second MLB start. Almost 11 full years later, the 2018 version of Buchholz is hardly recognizable — and that may be for the best.
“I was throwing probably 93-96 in 2013, and I’m not throwing 96 miles an hour right now,” Buchholz said. “I guess there’s less room for mistakes right now, if anything. We have one of the best defenses in the game right now so it’s easy to pitch to contact and feel confident that, if they make contact, they’re going to make outs.”
Buchholz, who will turn 34 on Tuesday, has made 10 starts with the Diamondbacks and is 5-1 with a 2.68 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 57 innings. He didn’t give up more than one run in a start until his fourth outing with the club on June 6.
In his 10 starts with Arizona, Buchholz has allowed more than three runs just one time. That is a stretch of success Buchholz has not enjoyed since he went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA over 16 starts in a season truncated by injury in 2013.
“The first year that I saw him he was practically unhittable, and then he got hurt,” Lovullo said of Buchholz in 2013. “That’s how I was introduced to him from an inside standpoint. It seemed like he would always move in a good direction and then something would come up and halt his progress.”
“It’s similar,” Buchholz said of his his current run compared to years past. “For the most part, whenever I’ve been healthy and been able to go out without any pain or anything while pitching, I’ve always been pretty good. It just always felt that every time I’d be good that something would start aching and I’d try to pitch through it.”
That Buchholz has reached that level of success again now — five years later, post-surgery and after being released from a minor-league deal in May — is a reason to suggest that this is a different version of the two-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion.
Buchholz left the Red Sox after a rough 2016 season in which he 4.78 ERA in 139 1/3 innings. He was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies that offseason and only made two starts with the club until it was announced he had a partial tear of the flexor-pronator mass in his right arm on April 12.
Buchholz was granted free agency this past offseason and signed a minor-league deal with the Royals with just a week left in spring training. In his contract, Buchholz had an opt-out clause he utilized on May 1, and the Diamondbacks were prepared for it.
At the time, the Diamondbacks were at a loss for starting pitching. Robbie Ray was on the shelf with an oblique issue, Taijuan Walker suffered a season-ending elbow injury and Shelby Miller had not yet returned from Tommy John surgery.
“We were banged up,” Lovullo said. “(Kris) Medlen had thrown, (Troy) Scribner had thrown and we were looking for someone to step up and seize that opportunity.”
Lovullo said that, during one of the team’s roundtable meetings just a few days prior to May 1, Diamondbacks Assistant General Manager Jared Porter threw Buchholz’s name on the table.
“I feel like, inside of that room, we felt strongly that if Clay could come in here and be a version of himself that he could help us win some games,” Lovullo said. “We were looking for anybody at that point of time. He went to the minors and built up his pitch count and I think his first start with us was in New York and he spun a gem.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is Clay Buchholz pitching, not throwing; this is him following a game plan, and this is going to have success here.’”
Still, Lovullo sees a different Buchholz now than the one he had become accustomed to in Boston. In order to evolve into his 2018 form, Buchholz said he had to learn some lessons the hard way.
“You’ve got to forget about everything that’s happened prior to the next pitch that you throw,” Buchholz said. “If you’re out there and you make a bad pitch and give up a homer, if you’re still thinking about that pitch two outs into the inning, then you’re doing your team a disservice.
“You’re not mentally prepared enough to pitch for your team at that point, I think, because I’ve done that and then given up another home run to put the game out of reach. As a starting pitcher, that’s not why you’re out there; you’re out there to keep your team in the game as long as you can.”
Lovullo said it makes him “feel great” knowing that Buchholz entered the fold at such a crucial time for the Diamondbacks and that his performance has made it impossible for the club to consider sending him down.
He also knows from experience that Buchholz has what it takes to pitch in meaningful games, and that he’s always had this wiser, more mentally tough version of himself stowed within.
And for a club mired in a heated pennant race, it could make all the difference.
“I’ve seen Clay throw in a World Series game where he did not have his best stuff in 2013 when he was coming off an injury,” Lovullo said. “He went out there at about 40 percent of what he had and pitched an incredible game in St. Louis. I know he’s poised and incredibly ready for this stretch drive.”
Richard Morin covers the Coyotes and Diamondbacks for azcentral sports. He can be reached at email@example.com and by phone at 480-316-2493. Follow him on Twitter @ramorin_azc