KANSAS CITY, Mo. - For a kid who grew up near Beaumont, Texas, not far from the Louisiana line, the heat beating down on Clay Buchholz last night was likely more due to pressure than the 96 degrees that scorched him - and the rest of the Red Sox and Royals - at game time. With Buchholz struggling, and Bartolo Colon starting tonight for Pawtucket, the golden kid might just be feeling the burn.
Buchholz's starts since returning to the major leagues (and well before that) have not exactly been stellar. He has lost four of his five starts since his call-up, gotten a no-decision in the other, and has lost five straight overall. His last win came back on May 2 against Tampa, also the last time he left a game with his team in the lead.
So while his teammates were sweating under the brutal heat, Buchholz was also wilting, done in by a third inning in which nine Royals batted. Nor did it ultimately work out for the Red Sox, despite a ninth-inning rally, the team falling to the Royals, 4-3, in front of 24,378 at Kauffman Stadium last night.
"I'm just not catching any breaks at all," Buchholz said. "The great players that play this game, they make their breaks. That's the little challenge for me, to make a break. It feels like when I do make a pitch, it's right out of reach of somebody."
Insisting that he's not feeling pressured, Buchholz added, "The only time you've got to prove something to somebody is when you're in the minor leagues trying to make it up there. I told myself, 'I'm here, go out and throw.' "
But even with Buchholz's struggles, the Sox still had a chance. After stranding two runners in the eighth, they broke through in the ninth. After Coco Crisp led off the inning with a single, J.D. Drew struck out, but Dustin Pedroia singled for his third hit, and David Ortiz strode to the plate. It was strength against strength, Ortiz against All-Star closer Joakim Soria.
Soria won. Ortiz tapped a grounder to first base, moving the runners over.
The Royals followed that by intentionally walking Kevin Youkilis, the go-ahead run, to pitch to new acquisition Jason Bay. Bay converted, with Alex Gordon and Tony Pena colliding on his grounder to the left side. Bay was credited with a single, a run scored, and the bases were loaded again.
But Sean Casey couldn't come through, lining to right field to finish off the game.
"Probably should have maybe squeaked that one out of there," Casey said. "I hit an 0-and-2 curveball. I really thought I got it in the corner. I don't know if he had it shaded over there. I thought I got it in the corner, but he was there."
So was Ron Mahay, in the eighth. With Casey on third and Jed Lowrie on first, Kansas City brought in Mahay to turn Jason Varitek around to the right side. It took nine pitches, but Varitek struck out swinging, prompting a major fist pump from catcher John Buck and preserving the Royals' 4-2 lead.
"We're close friends off the field, so I'm sure I'll be hearing about that when we get together tonight," Mahay said of Varitek, who was 2 for 4 with a homer and two walks off him lifetime. "He's always got the best of me. Tonight I got him."
Buchholz was done in by a rocky third inning in which the Royals not only scored three runs but left the bases full. After Kansas City had grabbed its first run on a 402-foot home run by Gordon in the second, it came back to take the lead as Buchholz was unable to protect the 2-0 lead he was given in the first.
After Mitch Maier struck out to start the third, the next three Royals singled, followed by a walk to Jose Guillen. Billy Butler hit a sacrifice fly to score the second run of the inning, Gordon walked to reload the bases, and Buck was hit by a pitch to force home Mark Teahen. It got better for Buchholz after that, but it was too late.
"He was pitching with such confidence, his body language, he was working quicker, he was coming off the mound with some aggression," manager Terry Francona said of the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. "But we got into that bind in that one inning. There were a lot of baserunners, and he was trying to be perfect. Just need to limit the damage. He's growing.
"We talked about when he came back that it's still a work in progress, and we acknowledged that. But I do like the way he went back out and handled himself and stayed out and pitched, because that's the kid we think can really compete in this league."
Though Buchholz has been a passable 2-2 with a 3.45 ERA at home, he has continued to have trouble on the road, coming into last night with an ugly 0-4 record and 7.97 ERA. He echoed Francona, calling his pitching right now "a work in progress," as he attempts to figure out just what is going wrong, what has led to his 0-5 record and 8.07 ERA over his last seven starts.
There was a moment, though, when it seemed it might all be righted before it fell apart. With one out in the third, Esteban German lashed a ball toward Jed Lowrie. But the normally surehanded shortstop couldn't make the play, and instead of a double play to erase Mike Aviles, German had a single, and the Royals were on their way to the win.
"Need to make a pitch, get a ground ball, and just the ground ball tonight was hit 150 miles an hour at Jed," Buchholz said. "Can't fault anybody for that. It feels like it's an inch away."