Home plate umpire Jeff Nelson let it be known to the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays early Saturday night that he would have a wide strike zone, and the starting pitchers of each team obliged by racking up the strikeouts.
As liberal as Nelson's home plate interpretation was, however, Clay Buchholz still did his part by working both sides of the dish — most of the time, just off of it — and earning eight strikeouts over 6 1/3 innings on work in a 5-3 loss to the Rays. Until walking Luke Scott and hitting Jeff Keppinger with a pitch to lead off the seventh inning, Buchholz looked downright dominant in his return from esophagitis, showing some of the best fastball command of his career.
Not only did the 27-year-old right-hander put down eight Rays on strikes, but six of those were on called third strikes, an indication of both how spot-on Buchholz' fastball was, but also how quickly he adapted and used Nelson's liberal zone to his advantage.
"Great outing," said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine after the game. "He pitched really well. He made pitches that were quality, had strikeouts, had swings and misses, kept them off-balance, looked good."
It's no secret that the Red Sox are fairly desperate for pitching 88 games into the season — mostly within the rotation. Their most consistent starters of late have been 24-year-old rookie Felix Doubront and converted long-reliever Franklin Morales. The team's frontline combination of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, meanwhile, has left the Red Sox wanting, with both unable to find success in a sustained role and lead the rotation.
However, having a healthy Buchholz showing the kind of talent he did on Saturday — and his five starts prior to contracting the gastrointestinal illness — would go a long way to not only stabilizing the rotation, but perhaps finding someone to lead it. Though Buchholz was highly touted coming up through the Red Sox system, he never quite stuck the way the team intended, and with Beckett and Lester leading the starting staff for years now, expectations for Buchholz have been tempered.
But on Saturday he showed the kind of stuff that could make him as good as anyone in the league.
Perhaps, after missing only slightly less than a month and spending time in the hospital, it was asking too much of Buchholz to go seven innings while still regaining arm strength, low pitch count or not. So it may be unfair to saddle Buchholz with a loss, just while it's likewise unfair to finger a bullpen for allowing inherited runners to score when it's been mostly sterling since the end of April.
Next time out it will be up to Buchholz to finish his evening in better fashion than he did Saturday. But for now, it looks like a hugely positive step in the right direction for both the young righty and the Red Sox starting rotation.