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Jackie MacMullan

Buchholz had to take his lumps

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / April 17, 2008

NEW YORK - So much for the pitching duel.

We should know better. Last Friday's tidy little masterpiece between Yankees ace Chien-Ming Wang and young ace-in-waiting Clay Buchholz, which produced two total runs between them, appears to be an aberration. In that gem, Wang pitched a two-hit complete game while young Clay played the role of the earnest, hard-luck loser after giving up just one run in six innings.

How foolish to expect that to happen again. This storied Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has produced many electric moments, but it has also racked up some of the longest - and most arduous - baseball games in history.

Count last night's among them. The pitchers met in the Bronx for a rematch, but Buchholz had given up three runs by the end of the first inning and Wang didn't get out of the fourth before he was tagged for eight runs.

Four hours 8 minutes after the first pitch was thrown, Buchholz and Wang were long showered and iced down. Heck, they could have caught a 9 p.m. showing of "Prom Night" together and still made it back in time to catch the ninth inning.

Both starters had all sorts of time to ruminate about their failed outings since they were succeeded by a combined seven pitchers who coughed up an additional nine runs.

Even though Buchholz checked out having given up seven earned runs, he did not leave Yankee Stadium feeling terribly downtrodden. In fact, he had some fairly logical explanations for why he ended up in the predicament he did.

"If you look at the line, I know it's not pretty," he said, "but I felt good in that game."

"Sometimes," offered manager Terry Francona, "you have to give them a little credit."

Against a different team, Buchholz might have gotten away with leaving his fastball up to the No. 3 hitter. But when it's Bobby Abreu, and he's ahead in the count, 2 and 0, he's going to grab all he can. In this case, that translated into a two-run homer to right-center field.

A-Rod followed with a shot into the left-field bullpen and, just like that, the Kid was down, 3-1, and he still needed two outs to escape the inning.

"But he kept his poise," pointed out catcher Jason Varitek. "He settled down after that."

The at-bat that proved to Buchholz's undoing cropped up in the fourth inning. Hideki Matsui was already on base with a single and Jason Giambi dropped a base hit into shallow right field when catcher Chad Moeller stepped into the box with two on and two outs.

Buchholz worked the count to 1 and 2, then threw a fastball he felt certain was strike three.

"I was practically walking off the mound," he said. "I thought I had him."

He didn't. The pitch was called a ball. Buchholz was perturbed just enough to let it break his concentration and fire in ball three. That's when Moeller dug in, fouled off two more pitches, then banged out a broken-bat bloop to left that scored another run.

So, what does the kid do? He starts thinking about how dumb he was to get distracted like that, and while he's thinking that, he (naturally) gets distracted, and walks Melky Cabrera on four pitches to load the bases. That prompts a stroll to the mound by pitching coach John Farrell.

Buchholz then falls behind, 3 and 1, to Derek Jeter before the Yankees captain drills a sharp two-run single to right.

Good night, and good luck.

Francona conceded his young rotation will produce results like this on occasion. Buchholz was pitching at hallowed Yankee Stadium for the first time in his career. The grand dame of baseball ballyards, which has undergone her share of face lifts through the years, will be laid to rest at the conclusion of the season. Buchholz certainly won't be tenderly affixing any snapshots of this outing into his major league scrapbook, but, he said, he won't dwell much on it, either.

"The first inning, his fastball was real live and they hit two off him," Francona said. "They were not bad pitches. It makes you think, 'What do I have to do here?' "

Buchholz knows the answer. He can't let a call he felt was questionable affect his next pitch, as he did with Moeller. He can't fall behind to a dangerous hitter like Jeter, who, as Buchholz pointed out, "knows that I never want to walk a run in there. He knew that. He knew I was going to throw a strike. He's a veteran hitter."

Wang, who qualifies as a veteran pitcher, was 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA before the evening started. In fact, you could have easily argued he was the best pitcher in the American League to date, able to eat up innings for the Yankees so they don't have to tax their bullpen so early in the season.

The Red Sox have not enjoyed such a luxury. Their starting pitching can't get past the sixth inning. That has to change - soon.

"No question," agreed Varitek. "We've got to find ways to get more innings from our starters."

In his three starts this season, Buchholz has gone 5 innings, 6 innings, and now 3 2/3 innings. The Red Sox need more from him, and he knows it.

How ironic that last season, the Kid was in the midst of spinning a no-hitter while the Red Sox brass carefully monitored his pitches. There was even talk of pulling him in the ninth inning of his no-no if the pitch count got too high.

It's a dilemma Francona and Theo Epstein would love to tackle again this year.

Buchholz, too.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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