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Buchholz in the stopper role

Ball in his hands against Yankees

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / May 13, 2011

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TORONTO — After watching the Red Sox absorb a stinging 9-3 setback to the Blue Jays Wednesday night at Rogers Centre, Clay Buchholz quickly dressed in the visitors’ clubhouse and readied himself for the trip to New York.

Scheduled to start tonight in the opener of a three-game series against the Yankees, Buchholz said the back-to-back losses in Toronto were not likely to add to any sense of urgency to his outing in New York. They certainly won’t make him feel any more pressure to get the Sox back on track against their archrivals.

“Naw,’’ he said. “We’ll be fine. It’s just two games. We have a lot of time to make up for it. We’ll be where we need to be when it’s all said and done.

“We’ll be all right.’’

A wary Red Sox Nation, concerned about the club’s ongoing struggle to reach .500 — it is at 17-20 — will place its trust in Buchholz (3-3, 4.19 ERA) to continue his winning ways. When manager Terry Francona tweaked the rotation, pushing back Daisuke Matsuzaka to Monday vs. Baltimore, he left Buchholz to start things off against the Yankees. Buchholz will be followed by Josh Beckett tomorrow night and Jon Lester Sunday night.

“You always want to be one of those guys the team counts on to get it going,’’ Buchholz said.

But against the Yankees, a club that has hit .336 against him, Buchholz knows it could be easier said than done.

“I just feel like they’re really good at making adjustments, pitch to pitch, each of their guys,’’ said Buchholz. “You’ve got to make sure not to make a mistake, and you’ve got to adjust the next pitch, not just the next hitter or the next inning. So that’s what they’ve been really good at with me.

“I can mix some really good pitches and they’ll foul them off. Then I’ll have a ball that runs back on the plate and they’ll hit it. That’s why they’re really good at what they do. That’s why they’re the Yankees.’’

After going 0-2 in his first three starts — including a 3 2/3-inning effort in a 9-4 loss to the Yankees in which he gave up five runs on eight hits — Buchholz has won three of his last four to even his record.

In that stretch, Buchholz gained mastery of all his pitches, allowing 7 runs on 28 hits, while striking out 15 and walking 9 in 23 2/3 innings.

So when he’s going well, what does he do right?

“As with any pitcher, pounding the zone with strikes, staying out of the middle,’’ Francona said. “I think Buck, in particular, when he falls behind, he’s able to stay with his fastball and do some ground balls. Whether it’s hard ground balls or not, if they don’t get in the air, that’s when he’s right.

“I think the obvious is when he’s got all four pitches going and he’s striking people out. If he falls behind, 2-and-1, 3-and-1, he can throw that two-seamer down and get a ground ball. That’s when I know he’s OK.’’

At this point a year ago, Buchholz had an identical 3-3 record and went on to finish 14-4 with a 1.95 ERA, finishing sixth in balloting for the Cy Young Award.

So what triggered the turnaround?

“I just felt like I had better command of all my pitches,’’ Buchholz said. “Everything just felt better coming out of my hand.’’

That seems to be the case now, especially after his last start, a 4-0 victory over the Twins Saturday. Buchholz earned the admiration of his teammates, especially those in the bullpen, when he threw 28 pitches in the first two innings, then endured a rain delay of 2 hours 7 minutes before taking the ball when the game resumed and going three more innings.

“For Buck to be able to take the ball after two hours, it helped the ball club out,’’ said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “And he pitched great.’’

The launching point for Buchholz’s resurgence last season came after he absorbed the loss in a 14-3 drubbing by the Yankees on May 8, giving up six runs on nine hits and five walks. He may be poised to make a similar run.

“I think if I can keep the side sessions and the bullpens going like I did last week, and keep that going, I think I could catch on and go on a little streak again,’’ he said.

“That’s what you prepare to do. You always want to go out and win. For me, it’s just going out and keeping this team in the game, because I know at some point everything is going to click and it’ll come together.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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