Clay Buchholz was a 23-year-old rookie making his second start in the majors when he no-hit the Baltimore Orioles in 2007. He was so intimidated by catcher Jason Varitek back then that he didn’t shake off even one pitch.
“I was scared of him,” Buchholz said.
On Sunday afternoon, as he stood on the Fenway Park mound in the eighth inning preparing to pitch to Kelly Johnson, Buchholz this time had the confidence to decide what pitch he wanted to throw.
And why not? Everything was working against the Rays, whom Buchholz had no-hit for seven innings.
“It’s fun to go out there and pitch when you have all your pitches working. Doesn’t happen every day,” Buchholz said. “Probably five times a season it happens for a starting pitcher.”
The Rays knew what they were dealing with.
“I was certainly thinking he had no-hit stuff today even after my first at-bat,” Johnson said. “Guy was nasty.”
In the eighth, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia called for a fastball and Buchholz shook his head slightly. He didn’t want a cutter, either. His choice was a curveball.
It was a decent pitch, a little more over the plate than Buchholz intended but still inside. Johnson swung hard and broke his bat. The ball landed softly on the grass in shallow right field.
“Didn’t quite get it there and he was able to put the bat on it. Just one of those things,” Buchholz said after a 5-0 victory.
Now 28, Buchholz is smart enough not to bemoan eight shutout innings and a career-best 11 strikeouts. But if ever there was a day for him to become only the 31st pitcher with multiple no-hitters, this was it.
The Rays have struggled at the plate all season, scoring only 33 runs in their first 11 games. In the five games before Sunday, they had hit a collective .169.
Tampa Bay also has an odd predilection for being on the wrong side of history. They have been no-hit four times since the start of 2009 season.
Buchholz even had his wife, Lindsay, sitting right behind the plate cheering him on. Everything was lined up.
“I’ve been trying to do it again since that day and it hasn’t happened,” Buchholz said.
Johnson was hitless in his career against Buchholz as he came to the plate in the eighth inning, and had struck out twice in the game. He tried to change his luck by using a bat belonging to teammate Sam Fuld.
“I was obviously pretty aware at that point,” Johnson said. “I was feeling that I needed to do something different. I put my back foot a tad closer to home plate. He threw me two breaking balls. I really was not expecting that, but I was in good enough position the second time around to at least make some contact even though it was a broken bat.”
The crowd of 35,198 gave Buchholz an ovation after the hit. He allowed another hit before finishing the inning. More applause greeted him on his way to the dugout.
“His performance pretty much speaks for itself,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “An outstanding outing on his part.”
Buchholz picked up strikeouts with his fastball (5), cutter (3), changeup (2), and curveball (1) as he spotted the ball to both sides of the plate. There were four walks along the way, which ran up his pitch count but did not detract from his performance.
Until the eighth inning, the closest the Rays came to a hit came in the sixth inning when Desmond Jennings grounded a ball hard up the middle.
Shortstop Stephen Drew deflected the ball toward second base, and Dustin Pedroia was able to throw out Jennings.
“I just grabbed it and threw it as hard as I could over there to first, trying to just get an out,” Pedroia said.
Buchholz allowed the hit on his 101st pitch and finished with 109, four shy of his most this season. Would Farrell have allowed him to chase history at the expense of a high pitch count on a chilly day in April?
“I don’t think we’ll ever know, will we?” said the manager, who likely was relieved not to have to make that decision.
Buchholz is 3-0 and has allowed one earned run in 22 innings with 23 strikeouts. He and Jon Lester are 5-0 with a 1.10 earned run average in six starts. They stand as the biggest reason the rejuvenated Red Sox are 7-4.
Sox starters are 5-2 with a 2.07 ERA.
“Everybody’s throwing the ball well. That’s the biggest thing with us. We’re just trying to keep our team in the game,” Lester said.
The Sox scored four runs in the third inning off Rays starter Alex Cobb (1-1).
Singles by Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, and Pedroia loaded the bases for Mike Napoli, who hit a high changeup to the base of the 420 sign in center field. Ellsbury and Victorino scored but Pedroia was held at third.
The base runners were cautious, waiting to see if Jennings would catch the ball in center. But it was well over his head.
After Daniel Nava was hit by a pitch, Will Middlebrooks hit a ball up the middle that Cobb grabbed. It should have been a double play but the pitcher slipped and was able only to get an out at the plate on a close play.
Drew was next and he grounded to first base. James Loney fired to second for the second out. But the return throw from shortstop Yunel Escobar was wild.
Two runs scored on the play. Cobb allowed only one other hit before leaving with two outs in the seventh inning.
The Sox added a run in the eighth when Pedroia (3 for 4) doubled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Middlebrooks.
Ryan Dempster gets the unusual 11:05 a.m. Patriots Day start Monday as the Sox seek a sweep.
“I wish Clay had done it,” Saltalamacchia said. “But we can’t complain with the way we’ve been playing.”