Red Sox 3, Twins 2

Cool customer

Buchholz keeps Twins bats cold in eight efficient innings

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 20, 2010

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No one was coming out of the bullpen to start the ninth inning. Clay Buchholz trotted back out to the mound. He had thrown just 100 pitches, controlling one of the better offenses in the American League. He was as efficient as he had been all season, a performance even better than his masterful one over a lesser offense in Toronto April 27.

He wasn’t allowed to finish what he had started, though, as Denard Span ended Buchholz’s evening with a broken-bat infield single to open the ninth. That brought manager Terry Francona to the mound, and brought Buchholz out of the game, and Daniel Bard in. He walked toward the dugout, the crowd of 37,426 rising with every step, and tipped his cap once he got to the muddy foul territory.

“You go out there and throw eight innings and go back out for the ninth, and I almost felt like I let the team down because I couldn’t make it through the ninth,’’ Buchholz said.

Hardly. It was excellence at a time when the Red Sox need excellence. Buchholz pushed the Sox back up over .500 with a 3-2 win last night over the Twins, a start in which he allowed just two runs on five hits over eight innings.

“Fun to watch a kid pitch like that,’’ Francona said. “He pitched. There’s some really dangerous hitters in that lineup that are feeling pretty good about themselves right now, and he really pitched. He used all his pitches, he located, he pounded the strike zone, he stayed down. Did a great job.’’

Buchholz kept his pitches down more than in recent starts, using his two-seam fastball to induce ground outs, while having command of all four of his pitches. Francona specifically praised his ability to pitch down in the zone, as well as the use of his changeup, as he got 11 of his 24 outs on grounders, and seven more on strikeouts, while walking just one.

“You start getting four [at-bats], he leaves a pitch up, I’d have had a hard time with that,’’ Francona said of his decision to remove Buchholz.

He retired 13 of his final 15 batters (until that infield single), and worked around a one-out error by Jeremy Hermida in left that put Jason Kubel on second in the eighth. Kubel made it to third on a ground out but was stranded when Nick Punto ended the inning on another grounder.

“That fastball is getting up there 94, 95, and he located his slider really well,’’ Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. “He’d throw that fastball out there, then he’d kind of throw a slider off the same spot, outside to lefties. He did a good job of hitting his spots with that. It’s a pitch that I think he’s been throwing more . . . He did a good job with taking what was working and going with it.’’

Added Sox catcher Victor Martinez, “It was great. As a hitter, it’s pretty tough to face a pitcher when he’s got all his pitches working. You didn’t even know what to look for. He was able just to command his fastball, locate his slider, throw his curveball down when he needed to. He just threw the ball really, really well.’’

After two late nights in New York — and a dawn arrival in Boston — the Sox returned to their home ballpark only to find the same abysmal weather they had left in the Bronx.

With a wet warning track and sloppy mound, amid the chill and the mist, the Sox maintained the bit of momentum they found Tuesday night by beating the Yankees.

It was not a night for offense, that was clear. But David Ortiz, who has suddenly found his stroke, blasted a ball through the sodden air toward the light tower in left-center in the fourth inning. The ball bounced up off the top of the Wall, and Ortiz nearly stopped at second base. Realizing it might still be in play, he hustled to third.

“The ball was not carrying tonight,’’ Francona said, citing drives by Hermida and Martinez that were cut down by the conditions. “That makes it more impressive, going opposite way like that.’’

The umpires headed through the visitors dugout to the replay room. It didn’t take long before they were back, signaling that Ortiz could continue on home. The second replay of the season at Fenway went the way of the Sox, bringing home Ortiz in addition to Martinez, who had singled and scored ahead of the DH.

The Sox added a run in the sixth, stringing together two-out singles by Beltre, Hermida, and Bill Hall, who played well at shortstop in place of Marco Scutaro, who received a cortisone shot on his left elbow before the game.

“That’s how you win ballgames,’’ Hall said. “It turned out to be a big run. Two-out RBIs make whether you’re going to win a lot of ballgames or lose them.’’

The Twins got one run off Buchholz in the top of the fourth. Span began by sneaking a grounder down the left-field line, past Beltre, for a double. After Orlando Hudson struck out looking, Joe Mauer doubled in Span with a shot to right-center. Though Mauer stole third with one out, Buchholz struck out Morneau looking and got Michael Cuddyer to ground to third base to end the inning.

Buchholz agreed it was the best he’s looked all season. It was an important start at an important time for the Sox, and continued to demonstrate the development the Sox want and need to see from the young starter.

“I felt like I picked up where I left off last year,’’ said Buchholz, who lowered his ERA to 3.26. “That’s what I wanted to do going into spring training, and that didn’t go the way I planned. They give me the ball every fifth day, and I go out and I try to do my best. That’s basically how it goes. You gain confidence from doing good and then it goes from there.’’

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