Red Sox 1, Royals 0

Starter a royal pain

Role of stopper snap for Buchholz

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 30, 2010

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Clay Buchholz folded the corners of the blue towel, molding it into the shape he wanted. He rolled it, making a perfect log of terry cloth. Then, he struck. As D’Angelo Ortiz (son of David) and Victor Martinez (son of Victor) squealed and begged for more, Buchholz snapped his towel at them over and over, playful and relaxed.

He stood there yesterday, in the middle of the Red Sox clubhouse, and talked casually as the pair climbed all over him, as they tried to dole some justice back at him. At one point, young Victor even whipped Buchholz in the pitching arm a few times with the towel as the pitcher chatted with a visitor. Disaster seemed imminent.

But through it all, Buchholz remained calm, remained unfazed, remained cheerful. This is who he has become.

Combined with a scoreless inning each from Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, Buchholz shut out the Royals, 1-0, last night to end the Sox’ brief losing streak at two games. It righted their pitching by staying away from most of their bullpen, and demonstrated what Buchholz means to this club. With the seven innings, Buchholz has allowed just four runs over his last four outings (27 1/3 innings), all wins. That’s a 1.32 ERA. That’s good.

As Martinez, his batterymate, said, Buchholz had “everything, everything, everything. Once again, he had everything working.’’

“The cutter he’s throwing now — you can call it a slider, cutter — it’s become such a good weapon for him,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “He can get back into the count, get some misses with it, get some ground balls. Gives him another look. He’s got the velocity with the fastball, he’s got the changeup. It’s a pitch he’s really comfortable with.’’

And batters are not comfortable with it. Not that it was simple. There was a moment in the eighth inning when Buchholz could have been excused for having a flashback — and a few nerves.

Bard allowed a leadoff double to Jason Kendall, who moved to third on a sacrifice bunt. But Bard got Mike Aviles swinging on a nasty slider, and then got a boost from his defense. Dustin Pedroia backhanded the hop of a sharp grounder off the bat of David DeJesus, winging the ball to first in time for the out. The Sox were out of the inning with their advantage intact. It was a play that reminded Buchholz of one that saved his 2007 no-hitter.

“Helps you win, he always does,’’ Francona said of Pedroia.

“That was pretty special,’’ Bard said. “I don’t know if it will make the highlight reels, but given the situation, that’s about as big a play as you can make for the team.’’

It kept the lead, and kept Buchholz in line for the win. It was deserved, as well as he has pitched of late. Buchholz lowered his ERA to 2.73, the best on the team, which also goes for his seven wins.

“I was able to throw four pitches tonight, just to show off four of them,’’ Buchholz said. “Cutter was good again. I was down early, as far as down in the zone, but I felt like I did a good job of coming up just a little bit, not too much, and staying out of the middle of the plate.’’

There is no question what he is now, as he proved to be the stopper the Sox needed in an assignment that wasn’t easy. After the Sox had lost the first two games of this series against supposedly a cakewalk opponent in their home park, they drew 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke. Though Greinke (1-6) hasn’t been the pitcher he was last season, he’s no pushover.

Plus, the starters had failed the Sox the previous two days, pitching a combined 8 1/3 innings, meaning they needed a lengthy start from Buchholz. They got it, in an outing Francona called “really big, for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, to win. Try to restore some order in the bullpen. He got us right where we needed to be with Bard and Pap one inning each with the lead.’’

Buchholz allowed four hits, four walks (one intentional), and struck out four. He was helped by a couple of other outstanding defensive plays, including an awe-inspiring pickup of a Billy Butler rocket by third baseman Adrian Beltre to start a double play in the fourth. With men on second and third, Beltre demonstrated once again that his defense is as good as advertised.

“I don’t know how he makes that play,’’ Francona said. “It’s just tremendous instincts. When you look back at the ballgame, that’s a big play in the game.’’

Francona added that he has been seeing “confidence, tremendous instincts’’ from Beltre. He continued, “All the things we’ve always seen, heard about, now he’s playing with a lot of confidence. That was a great play. That ball was hit about as hard as you can hit a ball.’’

The defense was needed, as the Sox’ offense didn’t provide much help for Buchholz. Their run came in the second. Beltre singled to open the inning, then moved to third on J.D. Drew’s double to left-center. Beltre then scored on Mike Lowell’s grounder to second.

The Sox could do little else, even squandering a one-out, bases-loaded opportunity in the seventh against reliever Robinson Tejeda when Beltre grounded into a double play.

But in the end, one run was all that was required. It might have made the game a bit more tense for those watching, but it was enough.

“It would be more fun if he had about a six-run lead,’’ Francona said of Buchholz. “He’s done a terrific job. I think the game has slowed down for him. Now he goes out and he competes. When he makes his pitches, and if he doesn’t, it’s not because there’s a runner on first. I think it’s a natural progression of a good pitcher.’’

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