Buchholz stars in cameo role
He plays no small part in Sox victory
TORONTO - The Red Sox gave Clay Buchholz a start last night to reward him, because they want him to know, through their actions, he is an important part of the team’s near and distant future. As the game wore on, Buchholz made clear the Sox had also given also him a showcase to display what he has spent half a season believing: He may pitch in Triple A, but he is no longer a minor leaguer.
Buchholz sparked the symbolic second half of the season by confounding the Toronto Blue Jays in a 4-1 victory, delivering precisely the cameo the Red Sox had hoped for. Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz offered support with a two-run home run and a two-run double, but the night be long to Buchholz, who before last night hadn’t won a major league game since May 2 last year.
“It feels like about three years ago,’’ Buchholz said. “It’s a good feeling. It’s good to be back up here and be able to have the confidence coming into this game and leaving with the same confidence that I came into the game with. It’s a good thing.’’
Buchholz allowed four hits and three walks in 5 2/3 innings while striking out three, the same brand of dominance the righthander has produced all season at Triple A. By the time tonight’s game begins, Buchholz will have rejoined Pawtucket. The Red Sox did not stage an audition for Buchholz; they threw him a bone. But Buchholz, before 32,928 at Rogers Centre, proved himself a transformed pitcher from last year, one who belongs in the major leagues.
After the game, Buchholz searched for flights today to Providence. The Red Sox, as promised, optioned him back to Triple A. Before he left the clubhouse, Buchholz shook hands with pitching coach John Farrell and hugged Justin Masterson.
“Under a lot of circumstances, he’d probably be pitching for us right now,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “He’s not, and organizationally, that’s good. I know it’s hard on him. We understand that. He’s handled it like you would hope. We’re proud of him.’’
Buchholz stifled the Blue Jays by mixing his pitches and limiting hard contact. Of the 17 outs he recorded, 12 came by ground ball or strike out. Buchholz relied on his fastball and changeup, the approach that turned his career in the offseason and spring. His curveball still snapped, but he did not have to rely on it.
When Buchholz found trouble for the first time, with men on first and second and two out in the second inning after a Mike Lowell error, Buchholz leaned on his changeup. Facing Rod Barajas with two strikes, Buchholz fired an 81-mile-per-hour changeup. Barajas swung early, with the majority of his weight on his front foot. Buchholz calmly walked into the dugout.
Prior to the game, Buchholz felt an enhanced focus. “It’s been like that all year for me, even in Triple A,’’ he said. “I’ve tried to take the games one pitch at a time instead of one start at a time.’’
The Blue Jays touched Buchholz in the fourth inning. Lyle Overbay’s one-out double, the second of the inning, placed men on second and third. Alex Rios drove a fly ball to center to score Scott Rolen, slicing the Red Sox’ lead in half. Buchholz escaped the inning when Dustin Pedroia snared a line drive.
Late last August, the last time Buchholz walked off a major league mound, he faced a grim reality: He was not good enough. He concluded his Red Sox season with a 2-9 record, a 6.75 ERA, no wins in his final 10 starts, and a demotion to Double A.
“Coming to a game, it felt I was already down before I even stepped out on the field,’’ Buchholz said. “This year is a different story. I think I’m growing up a little bit.’’
Buchholz retooled his approach and rebuilt his confidence in the offseason - which the Red Sox spent acquiring starting pitchers as a safety net. His chance for a place with the Red Sox, really, evaporated last year.
Even after his stellar spring training, Buchholz had no place on the major league roster. He had pitched well enough by late May that general manager Theo Epstein began looking for a spot start.
“Clay has done a really good job,’’ Epstein said. “His mental approach, the processes he uses, relies upon on the mound have really been refined. They’re now a strength of his, whereas last year it probably represented a weakness for him.’’
Buchholz had thrown 102 pitches after allowing a single to Lyle Overbay and walking Alex Rios in the sixth inning. His night was over, so Francona handed the ball to the Sox’ other 24-year-old fireballer.
Daniel Bard jogged in from right field, the sight of his lanky frame more and more coming to portend a quick inning. Bard struck out Jose Bautista to quell the threat. He struck out two more in a perfect seventh inning, blazing his last fastball past Marco Scutaro. In his last 8 2/3 innings, Bard has allowed no earned runs and one hit.
“Daniel Bard,’’ Francona said, “is maturing right in front of our eyes.’’
After another two innings, the Red Sox had finalized their first game of the second half with a victory, staying three games ahead of the Yankees in the AL East. The Red Sox enjoyed a pretty good night for their present, and Buchholz offered a reminder their future isn’t far away.
“I know where I want to be, and this is definitely it,’’ Buchholz said. “But I’ll come back some other time.’’
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com.