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Buchholz has arrived

Clay Buchholz won his sixth straight start in Rogers Centre and he looked more like his old self against Toronto. Clay Buchholz won his sixth straight start in Rogers Centre and he looked more like his old self against Toronto. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 2, 2012
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TORONTO - He has been found, safe and sound.

Like “Where’s Waldo?’’ we wondered “Where’s Clay?’’ He was last spotted dominating the league with 17 wins and a 2.33 ERA in 2010 and had been MIA since. He had a fractured back, and then seemed to have fractured confidence.

Whether it was a case of not being let loose to test the back, who knows?

Both Bobby Valentine and Buchholz said a 7-2 win over the Blue Jays, in which he went eight innings, had been building over his last five starts, but the anticipation was a killer. This was like watching ketchup come out of a bottle. Finally it all dumped out against the Blue Jays.

Buchholz had the highest ERA (7.19) and highest WHIP (1.83) in baseball entering Friday night’s game.

He was winning because he was getting run support. He was No. 3 on the depth chart, but Felix Doubront was better.

On Friday night in Toronto, Buchholz arrived. He was the pitcher we saw in 2010. He went eight innings, economized with his pitches (108). He threw a 94-mile-per-hour fastball with movement and bite and he threw it with conviction.

“It felt good,’’ Buchholz said. “It’s been building up to that the last four or five times out. I just hadn’t had the inning where I could shut them down without scoring, you know, three or four runs in one inning. It came together tonight. I was able to get weak contact in big situations. A couple of double plays in big situations and guys hit and put up some runs.’’

Valentine had also waited for this.

“Clay Buchholz was terrific tonight. Extra on his fastball, terrific changeup, changed his angle a little on his breaking ball. Two strikes, very competitive. I like that. He likes that. And I expect we can get more of the same,’’ the manager said.

Biggest change from his last few starts?

“Well, you know he was teetering there and he was searching,’’ Valentine said. “He told me he found something with his changeup and he went out and threw it three games ago, felt good and had arm speed with it. I think it’s made all the difference in the world. Of course, his fastball’s a little better, so the arm speed of the fastball and the changeup being the same have gotten him all these swings and misses. And then he has his curveball, which has always been a good pitch for him.’’

Valentine, who has had to maneuver the bullpen in almost every game, didn’t have to think much in this one.

“He wanted it and I wanted him to do it,’’ said Valentine about Buchholz going out for the eighth inning. “He didn’t have many pitches. Now he’s conquered eight. And it was only [108] pitches when it was all said and done. But there were a couple of tough innings. I know it’s only June 1, but when our team comes together and individuals build as the season goes on, that’s how a team builds confidence in itself.’’

Buchholz wanted to do what No. 3 starters are supposed to do - eat innings.

“[Valentine] came down and asked me if I had anything left and I said yeah, I have a lot left. The last inning was pretty high-stressed, two guys on again with nobody out. It’s tough to get through a lineup with guys they have featured in the lineup,’’ he said.

Buchholz struck out Jose Bautista three times. A big one was the first inning, when he fell behind 3 and 0, then came back to strike him out with a runner on and one out.

“Big, man,’’ said Buchholz. “That’s the time when he rises to the occasion, hits a homer, hits a double, and clears the bags. That was a big part of the game for me. That was just a steppingstone to get to the next inning and go out there with a little bit of confidence.’’

There’s that word again.

Buchholz has it. He seems to have it against Toronto anyway, beating them six straight times at Rogers Centre, good for a 1.72 ERA. He became the first pitcher to win six straight starts against the Jays at their home ballpark.

It was all about the fastball.

“It just felt good, comfortable,’’ he said. “I feel like my arm is getting stronger. Given the back thing last year, and starting to throw this offseason, it was more of a precautionary thing rather than trying to get it in shape to go out there and endure 200 innings of pitching. It’s getting to the point where it should have in the middle of spring training right now.’’

He struck out a season-high seven batters. He’s had 13 strikeouts in his last two games.

He’s not afraid to throw his fastball or changeup at any time in the count. That’s when a pitcher knows he’s confident again.

He also pitched well with men on base. When he struck out the side in the sixth inning, that was the only time Buchholz had a 1-2-3 inning.

He acknowledged he made some mistakes - homers to Yunel Escobar in the third and David Cooper in the seventh - but no big deal. Buchholz had this one in his back pocket.

The No. 11 who pitched Friday night was the real Clay Buchholz.

The imposter who invaded his body for so long this season appears to be gone.

Welcome back, Clay.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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