As Tuesday morning broke just minutes after a late night Red Sox win, the thought of Clay Buchholz on the mound and all the questions surrounding him coming into this game seemed far away.
Are we done with the rosin questions? Have we finished counting how many times Buchholz licks his fingers or wipes his hands on his pants? Perhaps you saw his breath showing up in the cool May air, or the icicles forming on the hair that he insists on wetting each inning (that is mere jesting, but it was a chilly night).
While plenty of people out there would like to keep talking about where Buchholz has gotten his magical results in recent games, something much more pressing was happening Monday night. The Red Sox were in trouble. They were coming into town having lost three in a row, showing not only a horrid offense (just four runs scored over the weekend) but also an inability to make a dent against the American League’s real power teams. 20-11 looked a lot less beautiful considering the Red Sox had done it by preying on the Royals, the Astros and the feebly flapping Blue Jays.
The Red Sox have looked bad at other points this season, and each time they had bounced back. Most people probably assumed that would happen again Monday night. But as the game began to unfold, the Red Sox did the opposite — and what could have been an easy stopper instead looked like the setup for a disappointing loss.
That’s what made Buccholz’s Monday night so good for the home team. The Red Sox wanted a resounding win, one where they could come out and trample the 13-14 Twins not only for a victory but also for some confidence. Instead, they encountered fighters who bit into Buchholz’s ethereal season with a fervor that few teams have been able to find against the Sox this season.
Buchholz had gone seven innings in each of his starts so far this year. He had not allowed more than two earned runs ever, and had only done that twice. In three of his starts, in fact, he’d allowed no runs at all, including the two-hitter that drew everyone’s attention in Toronto.
On Monday, though, he was immediately pressed. Josh Willingham and Joe Mauer smacked back-to-back doubles, and the Twins were up 2-0 after one inning. Buchholz recovered his form somewhat, striking out Minnesota batters at a frantic rate through several innings, but the Twins weren’t done. They added another run in the fourth, then one in the fifth. The crowd realized that the dominant Buchholz would not be appearing in the first inning, but soon enough, the question became whether Buchholz could make it out of the fifth, and whether the Red Sox had a chance to even win this one.
On a night that could have been a coronation for Buchholz to show how good he really was, and for the Red Sox to rebound and lay claim again to the honor of being one of the best teams in Major League Baseball, it was instead a slog. It looked and felt like 2012, with an underwhelming team scoring while the Sox’ big bats flailed and their star pitcher just couldn’t figure it out.
The Red Sox — and Buchholz and his pitching counterparts, in particular — have been eager to show that this is a new year, though. And while they’ve often done that by winning strings of games or posting the kind of dominant starts that Buchholz has become known for this year, they’ve also done what Buchholz did Monday night. Like his starting buddy Jon Lester has done several times this season, Buchholz found a way to help his team even when he didn’t have his best stuff. He kept fighting even when the Twins got to his pitches in early innings. He pushed through and put the Red Sox in position to win.
While the Red Sox’ offense took its time coming together, the Boston bats did eventually wake up. The Sox bashed in a run in each of the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings. They just needed some time to get going, and Buchholz, by limiting the damage as much as he did, provided that.
The most defining moment of Buchhoz’s start came in the top of the sixth, though. Having thrown 104 pitches already, Buchholz should have been done for the night by most counts. But he came out for one more half-inning and summoned perhaps his best frame of the night. On 12 quick pitches, he knocked down the Twins’ side, saving his bullpen for one more inning and keeping the Red Sox in position to rally.
Boston came through on homers from Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and Dustin Pedroia as well as a few other well-placed hits — all runs scored through persistence, patience and grit. No part of this victory was easy, but it was all steady, even before the results showed up, down to Drew’s final double.
While the Red Sox will love their high moments — the days they can win on walk-offs or see their pitcher go seven innings with only a hit or two — they’re not here this year for moments to remember or great games. This is a team that wants to build a winning season, and winning seasons come not only from towering home runs and filthy pitching lines but also grind-out wins on cool May nights when everyone has to dig a little deeper to scratch out a victory.
Buchholz showed how that is done Monday night, and that makes his performance against the Twins perhaps more valuable than another lockdown night could have been. Buchholz can be expected to be great, but in showing his team how to be just good enough even as the fire from a hot start has started to fade, he gave them much more.
The Red Sox are starting to show the chinks in their armor, but they’re also showing that they’re prepared to play past those weaknesses. Buchholz and beyond, that’s not a bad place to be.