THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

When he fired, Jays found it hard to deal with

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 23, 2010

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Seems to me Tito’s getting a little casual about what’s been taking place when he sends Clay Buchholz to the mound.

“I thought his stuff was pretty good,’’ said the Red Sox skipper. “I thought he gave us plenty. I think he’s been pretty good the whole year.’’

Pretty good?

Yo’ skip, that lean righthander of yours is leading the American League in ERA, and he’s doing it in the toughest division in baseball.

Or perhaps Mr. Francona is paying his young righthander a supreme compliment.

You think this kid is good now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Whatever the future, the present is, yup, pretty good. With yesterday’s six shutout innings during a 5-0 Red Sox victory over the Blue Jays, Buchholz improved his record to 15-5 while lowering his ERA to 2.26.

So maybe it was Just Another Day At the Office, the only nitpick the high pitch count (97) for just six innings. Yes, he threw too many pitches, which is what happens when you walk the leadoff man in each of the first three innings and when some pesky Blue Jay hitters prolong counts by fouling off some good pitches. There absolutely is room for improvement.

But the truth is it was fun watching him wiggle out of jams, both pre-rain and post-rain. The Jays put eight men on against him, but none of them went anywhere special, which is really the story, because back in Ye Olden Days it didn’t take much to throw the immensely talented Buchholz off his game.

Buchholz always has had great stuff. This is a guy who had Angels manager Mike Scioscia raving about his changeup following his first big league start and who threw a no-hitter in his second. Stuff? Oh, yes. Sometimes I think the people at Base ball Prospectus want to adopt him. No one ever said Clay Buchholz didn’t have major league stuff.

A major league head does not always accompany major league stuff, however, and thus Buchholz was unable to build on that no-hitter. His second year in the bigs was a disaster (2-9, 6.75), with the pitcher collapsing at the first sign of any adversity. He needed more seasoning in Pawtucket at the beginning of the 2009 season, but when he returned it seemed he really had learned something. There were some very nice outings included in his seven wins, whetting Red Sox appetites for the 2010 season.

But I’m not sure anyone was expecting him to be a Cy Young Award contender.

Not that he wants to go there. He’d rather not think about 20 wins or Cy Youngs.

“I just want to pitch and help the team win,’’ he said. “Other than that, whatever happens, happens.’’

But those numbers are beginning to pile up. He is 12-2 since May 14, and let’s not forget that stunning no-decision on Aug. 1 when he threw eight innings of two-run ball vs. the Tigers only to see Jonathan Papelbon blow the save in the ninth. He has thrown 23 1/3 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run. He has allowed either zero or one run eight times in his last 13 starts. He leads the league in night earned run average (1.79), and road ERA (2.23).

Pretty good, wouldn’t you say?

He walked Fred Lewis to start the game. Yunel Escobar lined hard to short, and Jose Bautista hit a rocket to left for a single, and that was pretty much the end of the hard-hit balls for the afternoon. He left two men on in the first, two more in the second (when he struck out the side), and one in the third when left fielder Bill Hall ended the inning with a nice diving catch. He ended the fifth with a 6-4-3 double play, and he saved his best for the sixth when, following singles by Bautista and Vernon Wells, he went strikeout, routine fly ball, soft liner to second.

Buchholz gets a lot of ground balls, which might lead someone to think he is nothing more than a crafty sinkerballer. Uh-uh. That’s only part of the package. He is also a major strikeout guy. Beyond that, he is a versatile strikeout guy, because he can get you with a fastball, a cutter, a breaking ball, or, best of all, that killer change. Ask Travis Snider about his swinging strikeout in the second.

Francona said the 59-minute rain delay with a man on, two outs, and a 1-1 count to Adam Lind in the third was never an issue. Buchholz was coming back.

“He was OK,’’ Francona said. “He was fine. The way he was pitching . . . and he was even better when he came back. His changeup was better.’’

The Sox didn’t break through against Shaun Marcum until a three-run fifth, but Buchholz said that was fine with him. “It keeps you focused,’’ he said of that 0-0 state of affairs through the fourth. “I think it’s better than being up, 10-0.’’ C’mon, you know what he means.

With more experience and a proven track record, Jon Lester has to be considered as the ace of the Sox staff. Forget that aberrational start Friday night. You’d put your money on Lester every time he takes the mound. But it was quite interesting to hear Francona say of Buchholz, “He’s becoming one of those pitchers you can count on. It’s very exciting for us.’’

Buchholz and his manager seem to agree on one thing: the best is yet to come.

“It might take a couple of years,’’ Buchholz declared. “I haven’t even had a full season in the big leagues yet.’’

Good point. But what we’re looking at right now is, conservatively speaking, pretty good.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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