Buchholz dazzles Blue Jays
Fans, lineup show support in Sox’ victory
The boos came down quickly. They accompanied Terry Francona on his walk from the dugout to the mound, and on the walk back.
But for once, they weren’t booing a starter taken out with too many runs on his stat line. They weren’t booing a player’s performance. They were booing the manager. He had, in the estimation of the 37,452 at Fenway Park last night, removed his starter two outs too early for their tastes.
Francona said it wasn’t a difficult decision, that it had already been decided to go to lefthander Hideki Okajima if a runner were on base when lefthanded-hitting Adam Lind got to the plate.
There was such a runner - Jose Bautista on a leadoff single - so it was time to take Buchholz out after 107 pitches. No matter how the crowd reacted. No matter how much louder they got when Okajima allowed two run-scoring hits, and had to be removed for Jonathan Papelbon without having gotten an out.
“I actually didn’t notice until [Dustin Pedroia] was screaming at me that they were booing,’’ Francona said. “It was kind of hard not to notice. . . . And for about a hitter there, I was kind of agreeing with them. But it worked out.’’
Papelbon went about his work quickly (five pitches), giving the Sox the 3-2 victory over the Blue Jays and maintaining their 2 1/2-game lead in the wild-card race.
Buchholz got the win with perhaps the best stuff he had shown in the major leagues. It came within 10 days of two anniversaries of the two most momentous occasions of his short baseball career - his Sept. 1, 2007, no-hitter, and his Aug. 20, 2008, demotion.
He is not the same player he was at either of those points, nor is he the same person. He has worked hard, as Francona said. He has matured.
Buchholz said his stuff last night was even better than it was two years ago in the no-hitter. He said he was able to “work both sides of the plate, being down for the majority of the time. I think that’s the key to pitching efficient ly and getting outs on a consistent basis.’’
“That was a terrific game,’’ Francona said. “He threw strikes with a lot of pitches, changeup, breaking ball, fastball. There was one situation - and I know it was probably four innings ago - but he got behind on the leadoff hitter after a long inning, threw a nice little two-seamer for a grounder. He really pitched well.
“He has a great changeup. I actually think when he establishes his fastball and makes hitters respect that, that it makes his changeup that much better. You start adding in two breaking balls for strikes, it gave him a lot of different looks.’’
In his last start, against the White Sox, Buchholz had appeared to be sliding. But for Buchholz, the salve has been Toronto, with the Blue Jays capitulating to his mix of offspeed stuff and located fastballs. They were dazzled last night, swinging early, allowing his pitch count to stay low, keeping him on the mound to confuse them some more.
“It’s been something that I’ve been working on,’’ Buchholz said, of being able to use all of his pitches. “First half of the season, couldn’t really find a curveball. It was really inconsistent. One night I’d have it, one night I wouldn’t. Tonight was a good night for my curveball, from the first batter of the game to the last guy of the game.’’
His teammates, meanwhile, had chances, plenty of them, and yet couldn’t convert nearly enough for a comfortable feeling to settle over the proceedings.
They added slight separation with a two-run sixth inning, scoring on Alex Gonzalez’s seeing-eye single up the middle and a bases-loaded walk by Victor Martinez for a 3-0 lead. But with 12 runners left stranded, it was far less than what they could have had.
“We had numerous opportunities early, and it could have been a lot of frustration growing, because we’re not spreading the game out,’’ Francona said. “Because of the way he pitched, it allowed us to kind of nibble away and get a couple more.
“It’s amazing how when you get a game pitched like that, you look like a crisp ball club, even when you’re not getting two-out hits or leaving the bases loaded or whatever we did, it ends up being a terrific game.’’
It was shocking, really, to look up at the scoreboard as the Red Sox and Blue Jays entered the bottom of the fifth inning and note that the Sox had scored just one run. Surely that was a mistake. Surely they had scored more than that. The Sox had, after all, seven hits, two walks, one hit batter, one passed ball, and one error on catcher Raul Chavez.
Yet the Sox had scored just one run against Ricky Romero, a pitcher they have battered this season to the tune of an 0-2 record and a 10.50 ERA over 12 innings. So while Buchholz was taking care of the Blue Jays, allowing them just one infield hit in the first six innings, Romero was simply surviving.
The Sox needed two batters to score their first run. Jacoby Ellsbury led off with a double and moved to third on Chavez’s error on a pickoff throw. Pedroia knocked him in with a single, the first of his three hits. Martinez singled Pedroia to second, but then began a string of futility: Kevin Youkilis struck out swinging; after both runners moved up on Chavez’s passed ball, Pedroia was picked off third; and David Ortiz struck out swinging.
The Sox threatened Romero at every turn. He finally left in the sixth, having allowed 13 runners while getting 16 outs.
Buchholz, meanwhile, never let up, throwing as well and as consistently in the later innings as at the start of the game. He had four straight strikeouts in the seventh and eighth, getting his ninth strikeout to tie a career high.
“I’m a pitcher, I think that’s the biggest difference,’’ Buchholz said, emphasizing that he didn’t used to know how to respond to getting in trouble. “When I got up here, the adversity that I’ve never faced - and didn’t think I was going to face coming here - was a big step for me. Being able to know what I want to throw after a pitch is made, and know what I’m going to throw the next pitch, is a huge thing for me to be confident in throwing, and be convicted in throwing pitches.
“Now I think I’ve evolved into a pitcher instead of just being able to go out there and throw a ball.’’
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.