Clay Buchholz backpedaled off the mound, moving under a high chopper off the bat of A.J. Pierzynski. The Red Sox’ righty, one of the best pure athletes on the team, camped below the sinking orb before uncharacteristically getting his feet tangled and falling on his backside.
Buchholz’s hat fell off, his long hair flopped around and he glanced at third baseman Adrian Beltre with a sheepish look as Pierzynski reached with an infield hit. Basically, Buchholz looked silly.
Silly is exactly how Buchholz made the Chicago White Sox hitters look throughout the course of another absolute gem. The comedic stumble aside, he was in control throughout Boston’s 6-1 win, keeping the club alive for at least one more day.
Buchholz allowed a run on five hits in eight innings. He struck out five, walked one and lowered his ERA to 2.33, just 0.02 behind Seattle’s Felix Hernandez in the race for the American League crown. He has lasted at least seven innings in eight of his last 12 starts.
“It’s definitely good being able to help the team win,” Buchholz said. “Every time I go out there, having the confidence that I want to go deep in the game instead of trying to scramble through five innings.”
The 26-year-old Buchholz, now 17-7, has had two hiccups all year. He had the one-month layoff after suffering a left hamstring strain in San Francisco in June and then had a winless three-start stretch within the last month that was capped by a one-inning, five-run stinker at Oakland.
Aside from that, he has been brilliant. After Monday’s dose of dominance, Buchholz had given up two runs or fewer in 17 out of 22 starts. And the latest win, coming at a time when the Red Sox’ margin for error is nil, showcased a few fine examples of what has made him special this season.
Continuing a career-long trend, each of Buchholz’s four pitches have been thrown this year with greater velocity, including his fastball, which has averaged 94.0 mph in 2010. On Monday he took it up a notch. He threw 46 heaters that measured 95 mph or more, topping out at 98 and reaching 96 multiple times in the eighth inning.
“I felt that the velocity was going to be there,” Buchholz said of his bullpen session.
Buchholz’s ability to mentally bear down was an issue in his first few years. He would often be too mindful of runners on base and lose sight of the task at hand. Opponents had hit .288 with runners in scoring position against the lanky Texan heading into 2010 — after snuffing out a handful of White Sox’ chances Monday, opponents were batting just .161 against Buchholz in such situations, easily the lowest mark in all of baseball.
In the bottom of the third, Chicago had runners at second and third with no outs, but Buchholz wiggled out of it unscathed. A lineout, a strikeout and a weak grounder to first did the trick.
The first two reached for the Pale Hose in the fifth, including Pierzynski’s infield hit that knocked Buchholz for a loop. A sacrifice fly later in the inning got them on the board, but the big hit was elusive. After Manny Ramirez grounded out with a man on second to end the sixth, Chicago fell to 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. That’s how they finished the night.
With some early runs off Mark Buehrle, those rally-killing efforts by Buchholz essentially won the game.
“We didn’t knock [Buehrle] around the ballpark but with the way Buch was pitching it was plenty,” said manager Terry Francona.
Buchholz will pitch one more time, at home against the New York Yankees on the final Saturday of the regular season. An ERA title and an 18th win are in sight for a guy once discussed as possible bullpen fodder.
Talk about making people look silly.