On the two-year anniversary of Jon Lester’s no-hitter, Clay Buchholz paid appropriate homage to his teammate’s accomplishment.
To be sure, on Wednesday, Buchholz was not as dominating as was Lester on May 19, 2008. But he offered a performance that served as its own sort of coming-of-age narrative.
Buchholz delivered one of the finest outings of the 2010 season and, indeed, of his young career in his team’s 3-2 victory against the Twins (recap).
He pitched into the ninth inning, leaving the game after permitting a leadoff single. Against a formidable Twins lineup that is loaded with mashers, he allowed just five hits and two runs while striking out seven, walking one and recording 11 ground ball outs (against just two fly ball outs). He required just 104 pitches to make it to the ninth, barely breaking a sweat en route to one of the finest outings of his career.
Buchholz seemed in charge of his entire outing, firing a slick combination of fastballs, sliders and changeups to either get the Minnesota hitters to swing and miss or to pound the ball into the ground. Much as was the case with Lester’s no-hitter in 2008, it was the sort of outing that allows an organization to take stock of a young pitcher’s development.
“I think there’s a reason why, as an organization, we’ve talked about wanting to give this kid the ball and letting him pitch. There’s a lot there to like,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “He works hard. He’s trying to get better. We’re seeing it. It’s exciting.”
This year, no one in the Sox rotation has done a more consistent job of giving the team a chance to win. He leads the Sox in wins (5) and ERA (3.26).
Since last Aug. 19, Buchholz leads the American League in wins (11). He is 11-4 with a 3.70 ERA in that time, while the Sox are 14-4 in those starts. This year, he is the only Sox pitcher to allow three or fewer earned runs in six outings.
He is averaging more than six innings a start, assuming a workload that has been nearly identical to those of Jon Lester and John Lackey, and that has exceeded that of Josh Beckett. With a depleted bullpen on Wednesday, the Sox needed length from Buchholz. He delivered.
In short, to date, Buchholz has been taking the ball on his regular turn and putting his team in position to succeed. In 2008 and even at times last year, there was an element of uncertainty when the pitcher took the mound. But now, he is becoming a member of the rotation on whom his club can rely.
“I think we know what we’re going to get from him. There are some games where the line score might be a little different from outing to outing. But he’s done a good job of getting us into the sixth and, on a number of occasions, beyond it. That’s all part of his maturity and him being able to command the pitches that he has,” said pitching coach John Farrell.
“We all view him as an upper-end of the rotation type of guy. He has that stuff on any given night. It’s a matter of putting that together and bringing it to the mound each time he walks out there, and he’s doing that more and more.”
That development, in turn, has changed the dynamic of both the Sox and Buchholz’ place on the club. Increasingly, the 25-year-old appears to be a key member of the rotation now and for years to come.
At a time when Beckett is struggling to be effective or healthy, and when Daisuke Matsuzaka is struggling with inconsistency (as is, to a lesser degree, Lackey), Buchholz is asserting himself as a key member of the rotation. That, in turn, has led to a feeling of security about his place on the club.
A year ago, his name started surfacing in one trade rumor after another around this time. But with each performance along the lines of what he did on Wednesday, he comes closer to ensuring that he will not be subject to the rumor mill this summer.
He is no longer just a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation potential. He is getting top-of-the-rotation results. He is young (25), cheap (he won’t become arbitration eligible until after the 2011 season), controllable (he won't become free agent eligible until after the 2014 season) good and improving.
Those are attributes not of a trade chip, but instead of a pitcher to whom clubs cling for the long haul. Last summer, before his emergence in the second half of the 2009 season, the Sox were willing to concoct trade packages that included Buchholz. This year, it would be difficult to fathom such a scenario.
For his part, Buchholz certainly feels far greater security this year than he did in 2009.
“It’s definitely different. Every time there was a big bat that was available and the Red Sox might be able to go after him, I definitely heard all that stuff on TV and in the media, through the news, it’s hard to deal with sometimes,” said Buchholz. “It definitely feels a whole lot better pitching without that behind you, that barking at you. It’s definitely a good thing.”
Indeed, just as became the case for Lester, if Buchholz continues to perform as he has thus far in 2010, questions about whether he might get dealt could get replaced by whether he will sign the same sort of long-term deal as Lester signed following his breakout 2008 campaign. Certainly, the idea of a deal that would keep him in Boston for years to come appeals to Buchholz.
"I would love for that to happen," said Buchholz. "That’s the great thing about baseball. If you do well at it, at a certain time, they’ll give you that type of deal to let you play here in front of a packed stadium. That’s definitely what I want to do."
All of that said, Buchholz’ development clearly is not finished. Entering Wednesday’s effort, he had a poor 28-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He still sometimes has moments where he looks lost on the mound.
But those incidents are becoming briefer and less frequent. In their place is an image of a confident and potentially dominant young pitcher who is capable of plowing through an elite lineup.
Here are some other lessons learned from Wednesday:
ORTIZ IS A FORCE
The swing was nearly effortless.
David Ortiz jumped on a 93 mph fastball from Twins starter Scott Baker in the fourth inning and sent it soaring to deep left-center. On a night when the rain, wind and cold all seemed determined to keep any balls in the park, Ortiz defied the elements.
His ball carried just over the Green Monster in left-center. Though it was initially ruled a triple by the umpiring crew, a replay determined that it had hit off the shelf atop the Monster for a homer.
“The ball was not carrying tonight,” noted Francona. “That makes it even more impressive to go opposite field like that. That was a really good swing.”
Ortiz has had a lot of those of late. He is tied for the major-league lead with seven homers in May, and he is hitting .358 (T-14th in the majors) with 17 RBI (T-8th) and a .774 slugging mark (2nd). On the year, after his poor April, he is now hitting .237 with an .837 OPS.
Had Ortiz hit a triple, it would have marked the 10th straight season in which he had at least one three-bagger, an accomplishment that would have made him one of just players to accomplish that feat in every year from 2001-10. That said, no one seemed terribly crestfallen about the ruling. Instead, it served as a reminder that the slugger remains capable of transforming the threat presented by the Sox lineup.
“I think he’ll take the homer: extra RBI, extra slugging percentage. I’m sure he’s pretty happy about it,” said Bill Hall. “Obviously, David’s been swinging the bat really well. He’s going to be huge for us. If we can keep him swinging the bat like this, we’re going to get right where we need to be. … He’s been hitting a homer, it feels like, every other day.”
DREW IS A RELUCTANT LEADING MAN
J.D. Drew saw his streak of reaching base in 17 straight contests come to an end, going 0-for-4 with a strikeout. His ofer came in a leadoff role in which he's demonstrated little comfort throughout his career. Drew is now hitting .229/.336/.390/.727 in the leadoff role, his lowest totals in each of those four categories from any batting order position.
THE DOOR IS OPEN FOR JOE NELSON
The Sox were hopeful that left-hander Scott Schoeneweis could prove a devastating matchup for left-handed hitters. He showed signs of effectiveness, striking out 13 batters (against 10 walks) in his 13.2 innings with the Sox. He was 1-0 with a 7.90 ERA, and lefties were hitting .346 with a .914 OPS against him.
That made the left-hander expendable when the Sox needed to add a shortstop to the roster to fill in for Marco Scutaro, who prior to Wednesday’s game received a cortisone injection in a left elbow that has bothered him while hitting and trying to close his glove. The Sox will call up infielder Angel Sanchez from Triple-A Pawtucket on Thursday, with Schoeneweis getting designated for assignment to clear the spot for the shortstop.
That move followed another earlier in the day to call up right-hander Joe Nelson in place of injured starter Josh Beckett, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday due to a lower back strain.
Lefties were 4-for-28 (.143 average) against Nelson in Triple-A Pawtucket this year. His changeup is a weapon against left-handed hitters, and so the 35-year-old will have an opportunity to secure the bullpen role to which Schoeneweis could not lay claim.
“He’s a guy that has the ability to get left-handers out,” said Francona. “He’s a veteran guy where this place won’t throw him. He competes. If he gets them out, good. If he doesn’t, it’s not going to be because he’s nervous or scared. He should be able to help us.”
Nelson had dealt with significant disappointment at the end of spring training, when he was the last cut in camp after the Sox elected to add Schoeneweis to their roster. But as devastated as he was by that decision, Nelson suggested that any wounds had been healed by his return to the majors.
He had spent all night on Tuesday thinking about returning to the clubhouse where he spent a few fleeting days in the 2004 season, a year that put his career back on track.
“That got me back in line. I’ve only had one surgery since then. That’s relatively healthy for me,” said Nelson. “They gave me the opportunity. I’ve never forgotten about that.”
Nelson, who signed a minor league contract with the Sox prior to spring training, was nearing the date (June 1) by which he could opt out of his contract and become a free agent if the Sox had not summoned him to the majors. Nelson was aware of the date, but hopeful that he would receive a big-league call-up so that he wouldn’t have to think about parting ways with Boston.
“I was hoping it would [work out],” said Nelson. “You prepare for every situation, but I signed with the Red Sox because I was hoping to be a Red Sox. I was hoping I didn’t have to go elsewhere.”
Mike Lowell made little secret of his disappointment at being left out of the Red Sox lineup on Tuesday against Yankees starter CC Sabathia. But if he is left out of the lineup again on Thursday, then his marginalization on the Red Sox roster will be even more extreme.
The Twins will be sending left-hander Francisco Liriano to the hill. Liriano is one of the most devastating pitchers in the game against left-handed hitters, permitting opposing left-handed batters a microscopic line of .154/.154/.179/.333.
When the Sox faced Liriano in Minnesota in April, Lowell replaced Ortiz in the lineup at DH against the southpaw. Even with Ortiz amidst an outstanding run, it would still seem as if the Sox are likely to turn to Lowell against the Twins on Thursday.