Clay Buchholz was the worst starting pitcher in baseball for the better part of two months, his earned run average so high that looking at the scoreboard made the righthander wince.
“It happened quick,” Buchholz said. “You never want to go out there and give up five or six runs in a game and it happened five or six times to me.”
That rough start will keep Buchholz off the All-Star team and he's not going to get any Cy Young votes like he did in 2010. But he can still be that same pitcher he was that season and be the kind of pitcher who can change a rotation into something special.
The evidence was there Thursday night when Buchholz threw nine terrific innings in a 7-0 victory against the first-place Baltimore Orioles.
“It was spectacular,” manager Bobby Valentine said.
Buchholz allowed four hits with one walk and struck out six. With his changeup back under control, Buchholz has given up only four earned runs over 24 innings in his last three starts, dropping his ERA from 7.84 to 5.77.
It was the first shutout of the season for the Sox and the first for Buchholz since June 4, 2010 against Baltimore. Buchholz has three shutouts in his career, all against the Orioles including his no-hitter.
The Orioles hit Buchholz hard in two previous meetings this season, scoring 10 runs on 13 hits and eight walks in nine innings. But they did not advance a runner past second base on Thursday.
The changeup is what is making the biggest difference for Buchholz. When located well, the off-speed pitch improves the effectiveness of his fastball. When it’s not, as was the case earlier in the season, it’s a pitch that gets mashed.
“My grip was a little off. I was able to free that up a little bit,” said Buchholz, whose 2011 season ended in June because of a back injury. “It has been a pitch that we tried to work on for a long time and I noticed it wasn’t the same grip I had in past years in the past years and it’s coming back.”
Said Valentine: “When you have a good changeup it’s the best pitch in baseball. It gets people off your fastball. It allows you to throw something when you’re behind in the count that’s other than a fastball, which is the pitch they’re trying to time. When you can break a hitter's timing you have a good chance of getting them out.”
Buchholz (6-2) also is working in an occasional split-finger fastball taught to him by Josh Beckett, along with the curveball. The mix allowed him to throw 78 of 125 pitches for strikes as the Sox snapped a three-game losing streak and ended a run of seven straight victories for the Orioles at Fenway Park.
Confidence also plays a role for Buchholz. Unlike some of his more assured rotation mates, Buchholz sometimes lets a bad pitch linger and turn into a bad inning. But when he’s going well, he works at a quick tempo and pays only the required attention to men on base, not an inordinate amount.
“When he’s competing against just the hitter and not competing against himself to find his stuff and his command, it looks pretty good,” Valentine said.
A few notes:
• The Sox are 7-0 when Daniel Nava leads off. He was 2 for 3 with a double, two walks, two RBIs and broke up a double play. He also made several nice catches in left field. It's impressive how much better he is now than he was in 2010. Nava is 29 and it's rare to see a player improve so much at that stage of his career.
• Adrian Gonzalez was 3 for 4 with a double and two RBIs. His one out was a ball that put the left fielder up against the wall. He leads the AL with 21 doubles, by the way. When he gets hot, history suggests it'll last a good long time.
• Darnell McDonald is 2 for 5 with two doubles since coming off the DL. Good timing for him with a roster decision coming up Saturday. One of the extra outfielders is probably coming off the roster.
• Fenway Park had maybe 8,500 fans when Buchholz finished off his shutout. Folks fled for home or a local bar to see the second half of the Celtics game. Given the results, they should have stayed at the ballpark.
Thanks to everybody for reading today. We appreciate the support. Make sure you check out the Globe tomorrow for a game story, a notebook, a minor league notebook, a preview of the Nationals coming to town and a sidebar on Gonzalez.