Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Focus on the hitter has Buchholz rolling

Clay Buchholz lost his perfect game with one out in the fourth inning on Tuesday, walking Felix Pie on a fastball in the dirt. He then came within a whisker of losing his no-hitter as Nolan Reimold hit a ground ball between third base and shortstop that a sprawling Kevin Youkilis turned into a force play at second base.

The Red Sox already led by an 8-0 score on the strength of home runs from Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Alex Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia again. The game, the epic collapse two months ago notwithstanding, was well in hand.

Buchholz missed with his first pitch to slugging right fielder Nick Markakis, a curveball in the dirt. He then threw over to first base to keep Pie close.

Even before Casey Kotchman could throw the ball back to Buchholz, catcher Victor Martinez already was sprinting out to the mound, his mask in his hand. The message?

"'Don't throw over,'" Buchholz said with a chuckle. "He just said, 'Hey, it's 8-0. Come on. Focus on the hitter.' I knew exactly what was going to happen right when I let the ball go to first base. I knew he was running out. He's told me that a couple of times, to try to focus on the hitter. Pitching is hard enough as it is, to just face a batter, let alone to have 50 percent of your attention on the runner and then the other 50 on the hitter. He wants me to stay 100 percent on the hitter."

Buchholz still gave up a hard-hit single to center field to Markakis, one of the best young hitters in the American League. But with runners on first and third and two out, Buchholz threw five straight fastballs to Melvin Mora and eventually broke his bat on a groundout to third base.

The 25-year-old righty then retired nine of the final 11 hitters he faced, leaving after seven innings having allowed just three hits and no runs. In his last two outings at Fenway Park, he's allowed six hits and just one earned run in 15 1/3 innings.

He mixed all four of his pitches with spectacular effectiveness: He fanned two with his changeup, two with his slider and one with his curveball, and he threw his fastball for more strikes than any of the other three pitches.

"They had to respect every pitch that he could throw for strikes," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He was able to pound his fastball in and expand the plate away with his curveball, slider, changeup. That's a nice mix. When he pitches like that, I'm not trying to get ahead of myself, but it's amazing how good the organization feels about the future. You look at him out there putting up zeros, and the way he can do it, it's very exciting."

It helped, of course, that the Red Sox scored more in the first three innings than the Patriots scored in their second preseason game.

"He probably looked like a combination of Don Drysdale, Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax when he got an 8-0 lead," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said.

But Buchholz knows as well as anyone how quickly a lead can disappear. It was against these same Orioles a month ago that Buchholz gave back an early seven-run lead in a game the Red Sox eventually won by an 18-10 score.

"I try to keep that out of my mind as much as possible," he said. "I try to stay as if the game was still tied and pitch the same way I would if it was a 0-0 game or a 1-1 game. I think that kept my pitches a little more crisp than they were last time against these guys."

The biggest difference? You guessed it: His curveball.

A month ago, Buchholz had next to no feel for his best pitch and instead was throwing his changeup almost exclusively when he wanted to throw an offspeed pitch. In that rough start against the Orioles on Aug. 2, Buchholz threw five curveballs and four wishy-washy sliders, his breaking pitches all but blending together in terms of movement and speed:

Against the Orioles on Tuesday, though, Buchholz threw all four of his pitches -- including the same type of knee-buckling curveball he's started to unleash in the last couple of weeks:

"The last three starts, it's been a pitch I can throw for a strike," he said. "When I want to throw it in the dirt, I can. It's the pitch it was in 2007 for me. I feel really comfortable throwing it in any count and throwing it for a strike. It's just another pitch they have to guess on or sit on, and it's helping out my repertoire."

Most importantly, though, Buchholz is pitching with confidence. He's pounding the strike zone, and he's not throwing over to first base every time a runner reaches.

Take out an aberrational start against the White Sox on Aug. 24, and Buchholz has a 1.79 ERA since his Aug. 2 start in Baltimore. Even if you include that tough outing against the White Sox, opponents are hitting .212 off Buchholz in that span.

All of a sudden, he's the No. 3 starter the Red Sox always hoped he'd be.

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