In 14 of the 16 starts he made during the 2013 regular season, Clay Buchholz allowed fewer than three earned runs. In his fifth start of 2014, three runs certainly seemed to signal progress.
Coming off a Patriots' Day clunker in which he was pummeled for seven hits and six runs in 2.1 innings, Buchholz didn't appear destined for a much better fate in the early going of his outing Saturday at Toronto. Five batters in, the Blue Jays had already scored three times on the strength of three hits, a walk, and a wild pitch.
But this time Buchholz found a way to stop the bleeding. He retired the next two hitters to escape the first, then kept Toronto scoreless for six more innings -- this time leaving his team with a four-run lead, and after the Red Sox survived a couple of hairy innings from the bullpen to let the Jays no closer than 7-6, ultimately earning the right-hander his first win of the year.
"I thought he got better from the fourth inning on," manager John Farrell told reporters at the Rogers Centre. "Some of the work that he and [pitching coach Juan Nieves] have been doing in between starts, picking up his tempo inside of his delivery. His release point was erratic the first couple of innings, but he settled down and really gained a much better rhythm, continued to execute an improved tempo and rhythm inside of his delivery -- and, tonight, seven solid innings."
It wasn't an easy outing for Buchholz, who said he "was too amped up" in the first inning because he was excited about the chance to see the fruits of the work he'd put in since his last start, which included the discovery that his delivery had slowed noticeably in comparison to last year. As a result, he was leaving his pitches up.
Eventually he settled down, and found a "happy medium" with his delivery, though even after getting out of the first he subsequently walked two men in the third, allowed a double in the fifth, and let a runner reach third in the seventh. Over his seven innings he surrendered six hits and three walks, while falling behind on the first pitch to 13 of 30 hitters.
But the most encouraging part of his performance may have been the pitches he made to get out of trouble. Whereas Monday he couldn't find a way to quell the Orioles' rally that brought the boos cascading down upon him, Saturday afternoon he figured things out -- the most impressive example after the first coming in the bottom of the seventh, when he used his 105th and final pitch to coax a fly ball out of Jose Bautista with Ryan Goins at third base.
"I told him he should be really proud of the outing," catcher A.J. Pierzynski told NESN after the game, "because the way he gave us seven, that was huge."
Following his previous start, Buchholz had said his arm strength was "not quite there" yet after injury cost him most of last year's second half, and prompted a change to his offseason throwing program. But Saturday he looked stronger.
The 94.6 mph fastball he used to retire Brett Lawrie for the final out of the first was the hardest pitch he's thrown this season, according to PITCHf/x. On average his heater registered at 92.77 mph, which was also a season high. His last pitch, to Bautista, lit the gun up to 92 -- and in this case strength might not be measured merely by velocity.
He generated four missed swings with his cutter, which looked sharper than it has been, and used his curveball to get out of the jam he created with his two walks in the third. As Buchholz explained earlier in the week, with better arm strength comes better action on his secondary pitches.
Even with Saturday, his season ERA still remains rather unimpressive at 6.66, and his record is accordingly 1-2. But after his fifth start of 2014, Red Sox fans -- and Buchholz himself -- can feel much better about the righty than they did after the fourth.
"It took him those three innings to get a better feel, but I thought he threw some better cutters and particularly his curveball as we got deeper in the game," Farrell said. "This to me, and the way Clay came out of today feeling pretty good about himself, is a step in the right direction."