Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lost in the disaster: Buchholz makes strides

Clay Buchholz didn't throw a single slider on Tuesday night.

He didn't have to.

For the first time in his second stint in the major leagues, Buchholz had his plus-plus curveball working just the way he wanted it to work. He'd thrown 19 curveballs in fewer than 200 pitches in his first two starts and hadn't ever really had a feel for the pitch. After an afternoon of work in the bullpen on Monday, he certainly had a feel for it on Tuesday. All in all, he mixed 20 curveballs among his 107 pitches, by far a season high.

He threw them down in the zone. He threw them for strikes. He threw them to induce inning-ending ground balls. He threw them both to set up and to play off a fastball that, at times, was just as sharp.

"It felt better tonight than it has in probably the past three weeks," the 24-year-old righty said. "I just decided to quit thinking about it and go out and throw it, and it worked as good as I thought it would today."

And in the wreckage of the extra-innings loss the Red Sox absorbed on Tuesday, Red Sox manager Terry Francona can take one positive: Clay Buchholz continues to take strides toward becoming a pretty capable major-league pitcher.

"He gave up some early contact with his fastball, and, to this credit, he didn't shy away from it," Francona said. "As soon as we put the runs on the board (in the third inning), he went back out and attacked. He had a real good fourth, put a zero up, and was aggressive.

"There were deep counts. But after the early contact -- he gave up eight hits early -- he did OK. He got us five and two-thirds, and, at the time, it seemed much more manageable just because he got into the sixth and gave us some leeway."

And the curveball?

"His breaking ball was much more crisp tonight than we've seen," Francona said. "There were some sequences where he really attacked the zone, and when he does, he has the ability to go through hitters -- any hitters. ... On a normal night, we're sitting here saying, 'The kid really battled, and, to his credit, he got himself a win.'"

Buchholz didn't get what would have been his first win in the major leagues in well over a year. But his final line -- 5 2/3 IP, 9 H, 2 ER, 5 K, 2 BB -- wasn't even necessarily indicative of the way he pitched. The first hit he surrendered, for example, was fastball middle-in that Orlando Cabrera chopped into the dirt and then over third baseman Mike Lowell.

And after he got himself knocked around a little bit in the second inning, he came back in the third and allowed just two more hits -- one of them an infield hit that Lowell didn't field in time -- in his next three innings of work.

A year ago, a rough second inning would have turned into a rough third inning and a rough fourth inning and an early shower. Not this year -- or, at least, so far.

"It's just a 180-degree turn, the way I feel," he said. "With the two runs in the second or third inning that I gave up, it's being able to bounce back and not get any more damage out of it. That's a whole lot different than what I was last year. I feel it. I don't feel any pressure that I felt a lot last year. I just went out there and was throwing strikes and putting balls in play and getting outs. That's all you can do."

It made things easier, certainly, when the Red Sox gave him a three-run lead coming out of the bottom of the third inning.

"You don't think you have to make perfect pitches and keep guys off base," he said. "I still threw a little bit too many pitches, ... but I toned it down a little bit in the later innings I was out there and got some good work in."

About the only thing he didn't do well was pitch efficiently. He threw 19 pitches in the first inning and 24 pitches in the second inning before he got into any kind of rhythm, and he finished up with 107 pitches in 5 2/3 innings -- only four fewer pitches than Tim Wakefield threw in his complete-game win over this same Oakland team in April.

His strike percentage (62.6) wasn't particularly bad. He just still wasn't putting hitters away when he got them in pitchers' counts.

"I can't say I was trying to strike everybody out," he said. "There were just a couple of pitches that I threw during at-bats that were fouled off and not put into play."

The loss, of course, overshadowed everything else. DeMarlo Hale's decision to send Jason Bay home with no outs in the bottom of the eighth loomed large in the ninth. The inability of Jonathan Papelbon to keep runners off the bases caught up with him in a big way. Nick Green's decision to try to do too much with a critical ground ball opened the floodgates. By the time Manny Delcarmen and Takashi Saito surrendered the game's two decisive runs in the top of the 11th, a disastrous finish already was a foregone conclusion.

But the way Buchholz pitched had to be considered a bright spot -- even if he didn't necessarily think so.

"If the team loses, nobody really cares about how the starting pitcher did," he said. "It's definitely hard to swallow. The team wants to win, and the guys go out there every night and give us a chance to win. Sometimes it doesn't happen the way you think it should or think it will. Those guys put the bat on the ball tonight and found some holes and did what they had to do."

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