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No real curveball here

Buchholz delivers latest good outing

Clay Buchholz, cruising with a shutout in the sixth inning, watches a pop fly fall for an error that led to a run in the frame. Clay Buchholz, cruising with a shutout in the sixth inning, watches a pop fly fall for an error that led to a run in the frame. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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While the Red Sox are not mathematically eliminated from the wild-card race, their hearts and minds are focused on next season, on getting healthy and fully preparing themselves for competing with the Yankees and Rays.

Only a few Sox players have something riding on this season beyond personal pride. Clay Buchholz set as a goal to become a fixture in the rotation this season, a sturdy arm manager Terry Francona could depend on, even when the rest of the roster began falling apart around him.

Such is the case as late September approaches. The Sox look like a beaten team at this point, and last night’s 9-1 loss to the Orioles at Fenway Park exemplified that. The highlight of the evening was the six entertaining innings by Buchholz, even though the righthander labored through his outing.

The pitches piled up for the 16-game winner, although not because he struggled with control or feared challenging hitters. Many of his best pitches were nicked and slapped into foul territory, raising his pitch count.

Still, Buchholz carried a shutout into the sixth inning, when with two out and a man on, Felix Pie lifted a soaring pop up into shallow right field. Second baseman Marco Scutaro never quite got himself under the ball and it landed beyond his glove for an error, allowing Adam Jones to score from first base with Baltimore’s first run.

By then, Buchholz had tossed 106 pitches, and he required six more to dispose of Robert Andino and his night was done. Had Scutaro caught that ball, Buchholz was headed back to the mound for the seventh.

“I thought his stuff was really good,’’ Francona said when asked if Buchholz struggled because of his pitch count. “Real good arm speed on his changeups. He got himself into some deep counts. He misfired a couple of times to run a count to 3-2 but came back with real good pitches.’’

Buchholz’s ERA is now 2.39, just 4 points higher than Seattle’s Felix Hernandez. No Red Sox has won the ERA title since Pedro Martinez in 2003, his fourth crown in a five-year span. Buchholz was only 19 years old then, a junior college pitcher two years away from being a Boston draft pick.

Now he is drawing raves from his manager, who sees Buchholz as a rotation fixture for a decade.

“This kid is as about as legit as there is,’’ Francona said. “Even tonight, he misfired a couple of times and you could see he was mad at himself, he gathered himself, came back and made a real good pitch. His stuff is electric. His weapons continue to improve. There’s not much not to like there.’’

Buchholz has allowed more than three earned runs in just four of his 27 starts — and two of those starts have been against the light-hitting A’s. He has avoided a major slump, responded after shaky starts with sparkling ones, and along with Jon Lester has carried the starting rotation this season.

“It’s definitely a good thing, it’s something that I think most guys in the position that I have been in, you have to go through a low zone to get to that [consistent] point,’’ Buchholz said. “But I’ve felt good every time I go out there. I don’t feel like I have lost anything like velocity on the fastball or not having the feel with all my pitches. The last couple of starts, I’ve actually felt good with every pitch that I have and been able to throw them for strikes.’’

While Lester chases the 20-win mark, Buchholz has a shot at the ERA title. And while John Lackey and Josh Beckett were expected to anchor the rotation this season but fell short, Buchholz has exceeded expectations.

“It definitely feels good to have some consistency,’’ he said. “Every time I go out there, I expect to do good, too. [The ERA title] is such a hard thing to do, especially when you talk about the guys in that group. Felix, he’s been dominating his whole career. CC Sabathia has been the same way.

“It’s my first full season in the major leagues and I have been trying to stay consistent. That’s my only goal. If you have a bad start, try to come back and be strong and not have multiple starts that are not good. That’s my only goal.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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