KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Clay Buchholz fought through a head cold that had lingered for the past few days. He also weathered the storm that came with helping entertain his fiancée’s family, who made the 45-minute drive from nearby Richmond, Mo., each of these four games to watch Buchholz’ team take on the Royals.
No, pitching at Kauffman Stadium Thursday night wasn’t easy for Buchholz. But he sure made it seem that way.
“Not many people can throw their fastball as good as he did tonight, and the guys who can are the better pitchers in baseball,” KC's Cy Young Award candidate Zack Greinke said of Buchholz after the Red Sox’ 10-3 win.
The box score will show that Buchholz pitched 6-2/3 innings, not surrendering a run while allowing five hits with eight strikeouts and no free passes.
That was just part of the story.
What truly transpired in the four-game series’ finale — in which the Red Sox dropped their magic gumber for qualifying for the playoffs to 3 — was Buchholz supplying the Sox with the peace of mind they are accustomed to having heading into October.
Much like in 2004, ’07 and ’08, thanks to Buchholz, the Red Sox have some security regarding their top three pitchers heading into the postseason. And, judging by the image presented by the Red Sox righty against the Royals, it might be more certainty than ever.
In the Sox’ first World Series-winning season, it was Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and the late-emerging Derek Lowe. Three seasons later the playoff run was led by Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Schilling, while last year Jon Lester, an ailing Beckett and Matsuzaka guided their team through the playoff fray.
But none of the Red Sox’ five postseason teams over the past six years have had a top of the rotation with so much gusto heading into the playoffs. That fact was punctuated by Buchholz’ most recent performance.
It was the righty’s sixth straight quality start, and ninth in his past 10. Since Aug. 8, Buchholz has gone 6-2 with a 2.37 ERA, holding opponents to a .212 batting average.
“He’s a four-pitch pitcher, and there’s just not a lot of those around,” Beckett said after watching his rotation-mate lower his ERA to 3.21. “There are no patterns. There’s no such thing as a fastball count for him. Now he’s got confidence in those pitches, and confidence is a big thing when you first get to the big leagues, to have some success and have that confidence that 'I can pitch here.' You have to feel like you belong.”
It was long understood that the Red Sox needed somebody to belong in that No. 3 spot behind Beckett and Lester. The guesses regarding who that might be stretched from Tim Wakefield to Brad Penny to John Smoltz to Matsuzaka. And, thanks to his recent run of rock-solid outings, Buchholz had clearly emerged as the guy to fill that role.
But it was Thursday night's performance that clearly set the tone heading into the final 1½ weeks of the regular season.
“He’s good, and he’s still got a lot of room to get even better,” said Buchholz’ catcher for the win, Victor Martinez. “He’s still young. The stuff is there. He just needs to keep working. He can be one of the best pitchers in the game.”
An impression was certainly left, on more than just Buchholz’ own teammates.
“He was pretty much cruising, pounding the zone,” said Kansas City’s Billy Butler. “He was out there challenging us.”
“Anytime you can throw 95, 96, 97 miles an hour and not only throw that hard but have pretty good command of all your offspeed pitches, you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting a lot of guys out,” said Royals first baseman Mike Jacobs. “When you think you’re going to get a fastball, he throws you that breaking ball or changeup. He threw the ball well tonight. You’ve got to tip your cap.”
“He had nasty stuff,” said Royals manager Trey Hillman.
But the prospect of the Red Sox carting out Beckett, Lester and Buchholz for the first three games of the American League Division Series doesn’t automatically translate into postseason wins. The veterans of the group can tell you — and have told Buchholz — life in the playoffs is always a little bit different.
“The one thing about the playoffs that some us in here know as far as pitching goes, it becomes more crucial to slow the game down and go pitch to pitch and do all the things even more methodically than during the season,” Beckett explained. “It becomes even more important than ever to go out there and remember those things that made you successful in the season, because those are the things that are going to make you successful in the playoffs.”
Here are four more things we learned on the night the Red Sox won their 91st game of the season.
ORTIZ IS READY TO CELEBRATE
David Ortiz is feeling pretty good about himself — and his team — a notion supported by the words he uttered before leaving the visitors clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium. “Confidence never walks away from us,” he said.
On the field, the latest example of Ortiz’ bravado came via his second home run in as many nights, his 26th of the season, which was one of three hits in the Red Sox’ latest win.
Then the jovial slugger carried his confidence over to the postgame, where he spoke on the subject of potentially clinching a playoff berth in Yankee Stadium this weekend.
‘Oh, we will. … Hopefully,” Ortiz said, “so we don’t have to get our clubhouse dirty.”
With the Red Sox' magic number now standing at 3, and three games against the Yankees in their home park staring at the Sox, Ortiz understands the opportunity, along with the chance to be the first team to clinch in the new stadium.
There is a chance that the Yankees, whose magic number to clinch the American League East is 5, could be the ones popping the corks this weekend, but Ortiz clearly feels the Red Sox have what it takes to beat their rivals to the punch.
“Great, man. That’d be great,” Ortiz said of potentially becoming the first team in the new Yankee Stadium to break out the champagne. “I guess, get that out of the way. It would be a welcome to the new stadium. … They’re playing good. We’re playing good. We’ll see who’s playing best this weekend.”
In the past six years, the Red Sox have clinched their playoff berths at home in 2003, '05, and '08. In 2007 the Sox earned their postseason berth while in St. Petersburg, Fla., but were able to celebrate their division title at Fenway Park.
AS THE ROTATION TURNS
Prior to the Red Sox’ win over the Royals, manager Terry Francona announced that there would be some tweaking of his team’s starting rotation heading into the final week of the regular season.
Tim Wakefield, who had originally been slated to pitch Tuesday against the Blue Jays at Fenway Park, was pushed back a day to Wednesday, with Buchholz sliding into the Tuesday start. Beckett will pitch Monday.
The adjustments sets it up so that Lester will make his final start of the season on Oct. 1, with Beckett pitching two days later before Buchholz throws in the regular-season finale. Most importantly, it allows the Sox the flexibility to start either Lester or Beckett in Game 1 of the ALDS.
"We're just trying to cover a lot of unknowns," Francona said. "We're just trying to cover everything."
Another benefit for the Red Sox is that it gives both Lester and Buchholz an extra day of rest. On five days of rest, compared to four, Lester has an impressive 7-2 mark with a 2.43 ERA, while Buchholz has taken advantage of the three times he got an extra day, turning in a 2.55 ERA in such instances.
“It’s kind of the way we run things around here, where you go through fazes that you go through pitching on five days, and then it’s like you have a month where you have a day off between each start and you get used to that. You kind of go back and forth,” said Lester, who, including the postseason, has thrown the third-most pitches in the majors over the past two seasons.
“For some guys, it throws them for a loop, but for me it’s nice to get that extra day where you don’t do anything. It’s important this time of year to get as much rest as you can and save those bullets.”
Ramon Ramirez had a rough outing for the Red Sox Thursday night, allowing three runs on three hits over two-thirds of an inning against his old team.
Meanwhile, the player Ramirez was traded for, Coco Crisp, was relegated to simply shaking his former teammates' hands, spending some time executing some on-field small-talk, and then heading back to continue the rehab on his two surgically repaired shoulders.
After coming into camp more muscle-bound than ever after working out with Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury at Athletes Performance in Arizona, Crisp ran into a monumental road block when he threw out his right shoulder making a toss to the plate in an April 15 game against Cleveland. A few weeks later it was the other shoulder, this one hurt while executing a swing.
“I was a little giddy because my arm was probably the best it was since I was 12 years old, so I put everything behind it and the arm just kept going with the ball. I just felt a burning sensation. It was like burning, hurting, gone,” Crisp said. “That was my throwing arm, and then, a little time later, I checked a swing and I heard a pop, even though it was a triple. But it kept going worse and worse.”
Crisp ended up playing in 49 games, hitting .228 until the shoulder injuries shut him down for the season. It was a painful reminder of what transpired in Boston, where the center fielder said he was only healthy the first five games of ’06 and the second half of ’08.
“The second half of last season was when I was finally able to crack my knuckle for the first time,” said Crisp, who broke his finger during the fifth game of the season in ’06. “I tried to play that first season with it, but that was stupid. I should have just had the surgery and played the last couple of years. But instead I played with a broken finger, which didn’t heal up the whole next season and then I had repercussions the next year. I don’t know, I tried to be a warrior but it really didn’t pay off. I guess with a broken finger I didn’t do too terrible.”
The good news for Crisp is that he is a month ahead of schedule in his rehab, and he figures to be able to have a full offseason in which to work out. The only problem is that he will most likely be forced to look for yet another team, with the likelihood of the Royals picking up what is an $8 million team option for 2010.
AN UNLIKELY THIEF
When analyzing Jason Bay’s game, baserunning usually falls way down the list of things that might help define the outfielder’s major league existence. But considering his base-stealing success, it shouldn’t be pushed to the back burner.
It’s not how many bases Bay steals — 13 this season and 66 for his career — but how successful he has been when he attempts to swipe a bag.
Since the beginning of the 2005 season, Bay has the best success rate when it comes to stealing bases of any player in the major leagues, having stolen 59 bases while only getting caught seven times (89.4 percent). This year he has been caught just three times in 16 tries.
But what is just as amazing is how Bay got his start in stealing these bases. It’s a story his former baserunning coach in Pittsburgh, Rusty Kuntz, loves to tell:
“It probably took him almost two seasons to give him the green light,” remembered Kuntz, who is now the Kansas City first base coach. “Jason isn’t in that burner category, so he uses what he sees to get his feet going. He had enough speed to be able to steal, so I kept telling Mac [then-Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon] that when we were doing drills this guy was off the chart in terms of his jumps. He’s reacting to it so much quicker than anybody else. I asked him to please give the green light and just see what he could do.
“We weren’t doing very well at the All-Star break, so finally I walked in and talked to Jason about it and he said he would love a green light. So I walked into Mac and said, ‘Can we just see what happens giving Jason Bay a green light?’ Mac says, ‘I’ll tell you what, he can have the green light until he’s thrown out.’ I told him that was a good deal for me. So I went back to Jason and said, ‘OK, we’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that Mac gave us the green light, so you can go any time you want. The bad news is that as soon as you get thrown out, that green light goes to red really quick.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll take it whatever it is.’
“Well, he goes off and sets the record for most times without getting caught. By about the 20th base in a row Mac walked over to me and said, ‘Hey, remember I told you if he gets thrown out he’s got no more green light? Well, that’s off. Tell him to keep running because he knows what he’s doing.’ He just took off from there, and every once in a while he’ll text me back and say, ‘Hey, I got another one.’ He’s an above-average runner, but he doesn’t have that burning speed. He just picks his spots and he can read the key as good as anybody I’ve ever had. That’s the key for him, he sees it and those feet start moving.”
The record Bay tied was that for most consecutive stolen bases in a season without getting caught, going 21-for-21 to begin the ‘05 season before being nabbed by Milwaukee’s Damian Miller on the third-to-last game of the season. (He was actually caught on a pickoff move, although Miller was credited with the caught stealing.)
The ‘05 season, however, clearly set a tone, as Bay went on to steal 11 bases in 13 tries the next year. He went 4-for-5 in ‘07 and a perfect 10-for-10 last season.
“He’s an intelligent guy. He’s got the instincts,” Kuntz said. “He’s got all the ingredients you need as a player. I just gave him the information as far as what I’ve used in the past, in terms of looking for keys and different counts. I just gave him the information, and him being an intelligent guy he just took off with it. He was like a Rolodex in terms of taking in all the information. He got up to speed in about a month for what takes another player a year to get that.”