With raised stakes, Sox stay hot
Buchholz escapes early trouble to silence Tampa
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The baseball was lifted, high enough that it caught on a speaker in a park known for its quirks. Dustin Pedroia didn’t move, didn’t run toward first base, didn’t do much of anything. He also didn’t really know what was going on.
“How about that?’’ Pedroia said. “It scared me. I didn’t run. I’m like, ‘Oh my God. Tito’s going to bench me for seven months and laugh about it.’ ’’
Hardly, given how Pedroia broke out of his 0-for-19 skid with two singles and a double last night. And even though he didn’t know the Tropicana Field ground rules — “I try not to listen to Tito, DeMarlo, or any of our coaches. I don’t want to get dumber’’ — Pedroia finished the third-inning at-bat with a single, starting the three-run rally that would propel the Red Sox to a 6-1 win over the Rays in the opener of their three-game series.
Pedroia and the offense can take full credit for this one. A lot goes to Clay Buchholz, whose continued maturation and in-game adjustments have helped the Sox begin to turn their season around. It was Buchholz who began a dominating run by Sox starters when he pitched eight strong innings against the Twins last Wednesday. With six sharp innings last night, the starters are 5-1 with a 1.64 ERA in the last six games, and the Sox have won six of seven overall to move within reach of the Blue Jays and Yankees in the AL East, though they are still 7 1/2 games behind the Rays.
“The first couple innings, there’s base runners all over the place,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “[Buchholz] made some great pitches. And then, as he got into the game, he got so comfortable with that — whether you call it a cutter or a slider, especially to lefthanded hitters. He could get back in the count; he could get swings and misses. I bet you he threw 30, 35 of them tonight. He had such a good feel for it. It was such an effective pitch.’’
The pitch, which Buchholz can alter by changing the pressure on his grip, was so effective that the pitcher got out of jams in the first and second innings without allowing a run. With one out in the first, he gave up a single to the speedy Carl Crawford, the kind of moment that could unnerve the young righthander. But it didn’t, even after Ben Zobrist singled up the middle and Evan Longoria hit an infield single to shortstop to load the bases.
Buchholz (6-3) got catcher John Jaso to ground toward Marco Scutaro near second base on a two-seamer, and the shortstop turned a double play, stepping on the bag and throwing to first.
“I was up a little bit [in my location], a couple guys got on,’’ Buchholz said. “Just took it one pitch at a time, threw a couple of pitches down in the zone, got a couple of ground balls. Big lift, out of the first inning. The guys that were on base, they can do some damage on the base paths. I got fortunate with a couple balls up in the zone they didn’t square up.’’
There was more trouble in the second, as Buchholz walked Carlos Pena with one out, and B.J. Upton singled and advanced to second when center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury threw to third. But Reid Brignac went down swinging. So did Jason Bartlett. After that, Buchholz had little trouble, getting 14 of the next 16 batters — the exceptions being a Pena solo homer in the fourth and a Bartlett double in the fifth. The Sox ended the game by getting 14 straight outs between Buchholz, Hideki Okajima, and Daniel Bard.
“They just brought it to us tonight,’’ Crawford said. “It wasn’t nothing to really put our head down about. It was just one game that we lost. I think they just outplayed us tonight basically.’’
The Sox certainly outpitched the Rays as Wade Davis lasted just 3 2/3 innings, throwing 40 pitches in the three-run third. He allowed a home run to David Ortiz in the second, and the next inning gave up a bases-loaded walk to J.D. Drew and consecutive two-out RBI singles to Adrian Beltre and Jeremy Hermida. A two-run homer by the smoking-hot Kevin Youkilis, off Lance Cormier in the fourth, completed the scoring.
“These guys have been giving us a hard time,’’ Ortiz said. “Not only to us, but to everyone. That’s why they have the best record in baseball. So you have to play your best.’’
Buchholz wasn’t at his best, but he was effective enough, striking out eight. He also walked just one batter. That means over his last two starts, spanning 14 innings, he has issued only two free passes. In his two starts prior to that, Buchholz issued 10 free walks over 11 1/3 innings.
“Buchholz, he was on,’’ Ortiz said. “He had all his pitches. He was throwing whatever he wanted to and that’s the only way you can trick those guys. Those guys are pretty good swingers. They’ve been playing great and the more you can keep them off the bases, the better chance you have to win the game.’’
The Sox moved to 5-15 at Tropicana Field since Sept. 23, 2007. It’s not much, but it’s a start, especially with the Sox playing their best baseball, and facing a team that swept them in four games at Fenway Park last month.
“We’re in the middle of the year, just playing,’’ Pedroia said. “We’re playing some really good teams, finding ways to win. That’s a real good sign, ’cause early in the year we got swept against the Rays at home. We really weren’t playing very well. We had some games that we could have won and let slip away. Hopefully we continue to find ways to win.’’