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Red Sox 3, Orioles 1

Buchholz, Sox hit another high note

Buchholz stays in tune while silencing Orioles

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / September 19, 2009

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BALTIMORE - Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell could tell in the bullpen before last night’s game. Clay Buchholz was not equipped with his best arsenal, the command of pitches a tick off, the snap on his breaking ball a touch flat.

When Farrell reported back to Terry Francona, the Red Sox manager did not worry. Buchholz possesses electric stuff, and there was a time he needed every bit of it. Buchholz proved last night, while pitching the Sox to a 3-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles before 26,812 at Camden Yards, that he can compete and win on guile, that a bad day does not portend doom.

As Boston creeps closer to ensuring its spot in the postseason, Buchholz provided further reason for optimism he can contribute once the Sox get there. The Sox have won the last seven times Buchholz has started. Eight of his last nine outings have been quality starts, and Buchholz has a 2.63 ERA during that run.

“Every five days, you send him out there, and you feel like you know what you’re going to get,’’ Francona said. “That’s part of him growing into this. It’s exciting. It’s really exciting.’’

Jason Bay’s home run to lead off the fourth inning, blasted shortly before he left the game feeling sick, gave the Sox their second run. Two runs is plenty these days for the Sox.

From the front office to the field, in the spring, in the fall, and in between, the Red Sox have preached that pitching will determine their fate. Their rotation endured a sine-wave season, but Boston is using September to make an argument that its pitching ranks above any in the major leagues.

On Sept. 6, Jon Lester allowed the Chicago White Sox no runs in seven innings. Since then, Red Sox starters have allowed three runs or fewer in 11 straight games, their longest such streak since they reeled off 12 in June 2006. The Sox are 9-2 over the span, a stretch during which they seized control of the American League wild-card race.

“Our pitching, that’s the reason why we’ve been on a run,’’ second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “If we continue to pitch the way we are, I don’t think it matters if we’re at home or away or playing in Japan or anywhere. We’re going to win if we pitch the way we’ve been.

“The guys are stepping up their game at the right time. They’ve proved to us in the last month that we’ve got one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.’’

Meanwhile, the Rangers remained in the process of excusing themselves from playoff consideration. Their loss to the Angels extended Boston’s wild-card lead to seven games and slashed its magic number to 10. The only thing worth lamenting for the Red Sox was they only have two games left against the Orioles, currently a collection of players masquerading as a big league club, a team against whom the Sox are 14-2 this season and 21-3 since July 2008.

Last night Buchholz allowed one run in six innings despite feeling as if he had command of only his fastball, not his curve, changeup, or slider. He allowed five hits and three walks and struck out just one batter, only the third time in his career has not punched out multiple hitters in a start.

“It was definitely a mentally tiring game,’’ Buchholz said. “That’s what I was told growing up - the nights when you don’t have your best stuff are the nights you really have to work.’’

Buchholz’s demeanor, not his dominance, is why the Sox can feel confident about the pitcher who has placed a stranglehold on the third starter’s role. He displayed his burgeoning presence last night during a pivotal sequence in the fourth inning.

Nick Markakis singled to lead off, and he moved to second on a wild pitch, one of four balls Buchholz threw Matt Wieters. As Wieters strolled to first, Luke Scott walked to the plate, and Scott had launched a ball over the right-field fence in the second inning.

Buchholz thought he had Wieters struck out on an earlier pitch. Victor Martinez has caught Buchholz in 10 straight starts, more than any other Red Sox pitcher, and Martinez sensed Buchholz’s frustration. “The more that you get to work with a guy, the more that you know him,’’ Martinez said. Martinez threw the ball back to Buchholz and then flashed him his palms, as if to say, “Calm down. It’s OK.’’

“That’s what he’s been really good at,’’ Buchholz said. “Whenever he sees me frustrated, he’ll either come out and talk to me or he’ll give me some hand signals saying, ‘Hey, settle down, get him out.’ That’s what he’s done for me.’’

Difficult situations like these often frazzled Buchholz in the past. He would wait and wait and wait before he threw a pitch. He would throw to first base as a nervous tick. He would hurry his delivery. With his own diligence and Martinez’s influence behind the plate, Buchholz has decreased or dropped those habits. In moments of concern, he has replaced chaos with calm, or something close to it.

Buchholz started Scott with a fastball, which he fouled away. Scott kept fouling off strikes and spitting at balls. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, a 94-mile-per-hour fastball, Scott popped to second.

“Scott and I had a battle,’’ Buchholz said.

The hard part was over. Buchholz extricated himself against Ty Wigginton. Buchholz knows that Wigginton crushes fastballs, and when he fell behind, 2-0, he refused to surrender. He threw a slider. He left it up, but Wigginton flied to center. Buchholz had escaped.

“That shows you how much focus he’s giving,’’ Martinez said. “He’s not giving anything up. He’s grinding every pitch. Every pitch he’s making is having a purpose.’’

The Sox had taken care of all they needed on offense early. Casey Kotchman roped an RBI single to right, one of his three hits, in the second inning. Bay led off the fourth with a solo home run, the run that gave the Red Sox the lead. Lately, once the Sox take a lead, they keep it.

Early yesterday evening, in the idle hours before his start, Buchholz sat on a clubhouse couch and played Guitar Hero on an iPhone. He never once relaxed on the mound, but he never faltered, either, even without his best. And no one expected any different.

“He still pitched,’’ Francona said. “He competed.’’

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