Sunday, September 13, 2009

Buchholz, Lester baffle Rays

If you want to see scoring, watch Adrian Peterson run.

If you want to see pitching, watch the Red Sox in the playoffs.

Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz look at Josh Beckett as a role model. Lester and Buchholz look at each other like buddies. The two often can be found on perched on the clubhouse couches, a laptop on the table and guitars in their respective laps, working out chords together for whatever song happens to be on the screen.

A day after Beckett tossed a rain-shortened pseudo-complete game, his best outing in a month, both Buchholz and Lester one-upped the hard-throwing righty. Buchholz threw seven sterling innings, allowing only one run on an infield chopper, and Lester threw eight even better innings, a broken-bat single to left the only hit he allowed until after he'd thrown 90 pitches.

"I didn't show up today saying I was going to pitch better than Josh or pitch better than Clay," Lester said. "I don't work that way. ... As far as competitive nature, no, I'm not trying to come in here and outdo those guys. They threw the ball really, really well. I'm just trying to pitch my game and execute pitches."

When a reporter asked Red Sox manager Terry Francona about the back end of his starting rotation, he lumped his top three pitchers together in that top tier -- perhaps for the first time.

"Buchholz, Beckett and Lester, if they’re pitching the way they’re supposed to, you start filling in those other spots, it’s a little bit easier," Francona said. "If those guys stumble, that’s when it looks a little bit harder."

Beckett, unless his bounce-back start becomes more aberrational than indicative of progress, remains the staff ace. Lester and Buchholz, however, might be the best No. 2 and No. 3 starters in major-league baseball. Lester had already surpassed Beckett in terms of ERA (3.29 to 3.82), and Buchholz (3.66) did so with his sensational effort on Sunday.

Here's a closer look at how Buchholz and Lester combined to surrender just one run and seven hits in 15 innings against the Rays on Sunday:

Clay Buchholz
That changeup. Oh, that changeup.

Buchholz came up with a plus curveball. He's developed a plus slider. He's spent the entire season refining his fastball.

The Rays, however, couldn't touch his changeup.

The 25-year-old righty threw mixed 24 changeups into his repertoire on Sunday. The Rays swung and missed at nine of them -- an absurd number.

All in all, Buchholz induced a season-best 15 swings and misses -- one with his slider, two with his curveball, three with his fastball and nine with that beautiful changeup.

To put that in perspective, Beckett hasn't gotten 15 swings and misses in any of his starts this season. Cy Young front-runner Zack Greinke has induced 15 swings and misses in just three of his 29 starts.

If not for one fluky ground ball up the middle, Buchholz would have escaped seven innings without allowing a single earned run.

"It's unfortunate that a bleeder up the middle gets him," Lester said. "It's unlucky. If the ball's hit a little bit harder, it's an out. But he threw the ball really well. You could tell early on he was really feeling it with his changeup, and he carried that confidence over."

It's easy to see why the changeup was effective. The chart:

The horizontal axis is speed. The vertical axis is up-and-down movement. When Buchholz throws his changeup, it looks exactly the same as his fastball but comes in 10 or 12 miles an hour slower.

Compare that to his final halfway decent start a year ago:

(The colors are different, but you can see how his changeup and his slider run together and how neither are along the same vertical axis as his fastball.)

If a hitter can't see the ball start to break, he's going to read fastball -- and he's going to be way out in front with his swing. That's what Buchholz did to the Rays on Sunday.

It's even more difficult to see the difference during the sunshine of the afternoon under which the skinny Texan was pitching.

"When you change speeds on a day like today when it's bright and it's not bright and it's bright, that makes it even tougher," Francona said. "I even asked (umpire) Randy Marsh when I made a change, I said, 'Can you see?' He said, 'Some of it.' You see part of the ball. Anybody that's changing speeds, it's making it that much more difficult."

Said Buchholz, "It's a pitch I feel I can throw on hitters' counts. It's just a ptich you can throw with the same arm speed as your fastball just to get them off just that little tick and maybe get a mis-hit ball or pop up somebody. It's been a good pitch for me."

Buchholz now has a 1.59 ERA in his last four starts, all wins, and opponents are hitting .170 against him in that span. Through out one lousy start against the White Sox, and Buchholz has a 1.71 ERA since Aug. 8.

It's tough for Francona not to get ahead of himself.

"When he pitches well, it’s hard not to think of the future," the manager said. "I know we’re caught in the present, but he’s a young pitcher that’s trying to establish himself as a winner. When he does that, he certainly makes the future a lot brighter. You can’t find pitching, ... and you’ve got a guy right in your own backyard."

It's hard for us not to get ahead of ourselves, too.

The last time a Red Sox pitcher showed off a changeup like that, though, fans waved Dominican flags in the bleachers and chanted "Ped-ro! Ped-ro!" every five days.

Jon Lester
Not only has Lester surpassed Beckett in several statistical categories this season, he might just have surpassed Beckett as the best power arm in the Red Sox rotation. The lefty touched 97.7 miles per hour on an admittedly generous Fenway Park gun and averaged better than 94 miles in his eight innings.

It was a particularly impressive effort given the false start he'd endured on Friday. He had to rush his warm-up pitches and threw 23 pitches in a driving rain before umpires called a halt to the proceedings.

He then came back two days later and threw 105 pitches across eight shutout innings.

"I was kind of surprised at the way my body responded," he said. "It was almost like an extended bullpen. I'm guessing, but I'm right around 40 pitches in the bullpen and 20 pitches out there. A 60-pitch side has been done by me many times. I've been out there grinding away.

"I figured I'd be a little more sore (on Saturday) than I was, but it turned out to work pretty well."

The lefty didn't command particularly well in the rain on Friday: He allowed three hits and a fly ball to center field, and all four came on either fastballs or cutters that he'd left in the middle of the strike zone:

It was a far different story on Sunday. He left one pitch in the middle of the strike zone -- a first-pitch fastball right down the middle to Jason Bartlett that inexplicably was called a ball -- but the pitches the Rays put in play all were on the edges of the zone:

From there, it was a matter of doing what he's done all season. Lester fanned the side in the third inning on a fastball, a curveball and a fastball. He then walked the dangerous Evan Longoria in the fourth ining but followed that by striking out Ben Zobrist (swinging at a curveball) and Erick Aybar (swinging at a cutter).

Francona could have lifted him for a reliever after he allowed a leadoff single to Dioner Navarro in the top of the eighth. But with Navarro on third base and pinch-hitter Pat Burrell at the plate, Lester struck him out with three straight elevated fastballs and a nasty curveball down and in:

It's easy to compare Buchholz now to Lester a year ago. But even if you take Lester's cancer out of the equation, they're two different pitchers -- and they've traveled two different career arcs.

"Clay came up right away and throws a no-hitter," Lester said. "After his second start, he's already got expectations. It took me a while to build those expecations.

"That's got to be tough. You come up here and throw a no-hitter, and it's like, 'Oh, this is easy.' It's not, and he learned that kind of the hard way -- but I think it's going to make him a better pitcher. As you've seen, I think he's grown up quite a bit, and he's done unbelievably well."

So, too, has Lester.

While Buchholz can make a pretty good argument to be considered the No. 3 starter in the Red Sox rotation, Lester can make a pretty good argument to be considered the best lefthanded pitcher in the major leagues.

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