But that’s what growing up is all about.
The 23-year-old right-hander is still searching for the season that will define him, that will solidify him as a bona fide major leaguer, as an indispensable component of the starting rotation. And finally, it seems as though Buchholz has found that season.
Tuesday’s 6-3 win over Arizona wasn’t easy. It was a bit of a grind for Buchholz, a game in which a high pitch count forced him off the mound sooner than he would have liked.
"He got into some hitters counts … which drove his pitch count up," said manager Terry Francona. "The way [the Diamondbacks] approach, they're very aggressive, take a lot of big swings, and you're going to get some deep counts."
But when things got difficult – even as early as one out in the top of the first – Buchholz didn’t unravel. And that has been the difference for Buchholz this year.
"Obviously, he didn't bring his best stuff, but he was able to hang in there and
give us a good chance to win the ballgame," said catcher Victor Martinez. "And that was it."
After he retired leadoff man Kelly Johnson in the first, Buchholz allowed a base hit to Stephen Drew. Drew stole second with two outs, then came around to score on another base hit, this one by former Red Sox Adam LaRoche.
Then, Kevin Youkilis mishandled what would have been out number three, a hard shot toward first by Miguel Montero. It was Youkilis’ first error since October 2009, his first at first base since April 2009.
Yet Buchholz kept it together and escaped from the frame, and in the bottom of the inning, David Ortiz picked him up with a two-run bomb to the deepest part of the park.
"He’s the key to success for this team," Buchholz said. "When he's hitting, it's just a different lineup to pitch to for opposing pitchers."
Buchholz ran into his fair share of speed bumps en route to his ninth win of the season. It took him 21 pitches to get an out in a fourth inning, after allowing a two-run, wall-ball double to Justin Upton that helped the Diamondbacks narrow their deficit to 5-3. He was yanked after getting the first out of the fifth, thanks to a pitch count that had all too quickly reached 113.
"That's just the way it goes some times," Buchholz said. "I've come to terms with it. You definitely don't want to not go six or seven innings any time out, but sometimes it happens. [On Tuesday], we handed it over to the bullpen, and they were lights-out and did a good job."
Buchholz may have thrown his 99th pitch by the time the fifth inning started, but through his 5 1/3 innings, he registered eight strikeouts, tallying five by the end of the third inning
He kept his composure, he got the win. He did his job.
"Keeping the team in the game, that's the job as a pitcher, to go out there and try to keep a lead and try to get your offense back in the box," Buchholz said. "You have to sort of bear down and throw a couple of pitches you need to throw in some situations. I was lucky enough to throw some good pitches in a couple of those at-bats. … I made some good pitches in some big spots, and I was fortunate enough to get out of it."
Buchholz has now won eight of his last 10 starts since April 27, tying Tampa Bay’s David Price and New York’s Phil Hughes for the league lead in wins with nine (although Price stood to take sole possession of the lead against Atlanta later on Tuesday). Tuesday’s start was also Buchholz’s ninth quality start of the season, which leads the team – as does his 2.67 ERA.
A year ago, Buchholz had to fight every week to keep his spot in the rotation. Now, he’s a long shot to miss the All-Star Game.
At the moment, that’s not an honor that matters – but it would still be a nice one.
"There's still a couple of weeks before any of that stuff starts," Buchholz said. "It would be an honor to be a part of something like that, but on the other side, I'm just trying to go out every five days and trying to keep the team on the streak it's on right now."
Every season, there seems to be one pitcher on this team who comes out of left field to lead the staff – which otherwise may have been doomed – toward salvation. Last year, it was Tim Wakefield (for the first half of the season). In 2008, it was Jon Lester.
This year, it’s Clay Buchholz – and nobody is really all that surprised. It seems like he’s finally where he is supposed to be.
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