CLEARWATER, Fla. - For 90 pitches, Clay Buchholz searched. He plodded Sunday afternoon between each one. His chance at completing just four innings with less than a week until opening day diminished with every misfired fastball.
"Four walks is definitely subpar," Buchholz said. "But, you know, it's still spring training."
It is. Buchholz is a veteran; he has enjoyed good springs and endured bad ones, with the results having little predictive value for the real games. But this spring is atypical because Buchholz has a new employer for the first time in his professional career and his progress was understandably interrupted by the birth of his son, Jax, last week.
His first impressions have not been optimal.
Buchholz appeared in a Grapefruit League game Sunday for the first time in 10 days. He faced a Pittsburgh lineup that featured three of its regulars. He permitted nine base runners in 31/3 innings. He threw an average of 4.7 pitches per batter.
"Let's put it this way: You can't honestly say he had a good spring," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said after a 6-3 win over the Pirates. "But he was up close to 90 pitches today. Pitch-count wise, he's doing fine. He hadn't pitched in nine days, so I can understand his lack of command. Once he's into a rhythm I think he'll be fine."
Buchholz, who came to the Phillies in a December trade that doubled as a salary dump, did not epitomize consistency in his final seasons with Boston. He agreed with his manager's assessment that, with a little more time, he can correct spring command problems.
"In the first inning, my velocity was up a couple of ticks," Buchholz said. "That's good to see, getting closer to the season, knowing my strengthening is building up. That's what spring training is all about and that's what I've tried to use it for this year."
This spring, Buchholz has walked nine and allowed four home runs in 162/3 innings. He has a 5.94 ERA. For his career, he has a 4.01 ERA in spring games, which almost mirrors his lifetime major-league 3.96 ERA.
The numbers mean far less this spring than his arsenal's lack of sharpness, which has caught the eyes of scouts who have watched Buchholz in March. The Phillies acquired Buchholz not as a panacea but as a lottery ticket, an arm that could pitch well for a few months and be flipped for a prospect later.
Buchholz applied major mechanical adjustments midway through last season with the Red Sox. It changed the movement on his pitches, which started to break downward more. He generated more swings and misses.
The Pirates hitters were not often fooled Sunday. They fouled many of Buchholz's two-strike pitches.
"Pitches that didn't quite get to where I wanted and let the batter get a piece of wood on it," Buchholz said. "I think the command of the off-speed stuff will come. That's usually what comes last."
The Phillies plan to slot Buchholz, who will make $13.5 million in 2017, third in the rotation. That would put him on the mound April 6 for the series finale in Cincinnati.
Buchholz said he threw a few bullpen sessions last week upon his return from Texas, where his third child was born. He identified a few "easy fixes" that he can try without even throwing a pitch.
He was not disappointed by the fact that it required 90 pitches to record 10 outs.
"No," Buchholz said, "because you're going to have to grind at some point during the season. When runners are on base, those are high-stress pitches for the most part, and that's the situations you have to make pitches."