Rick Sweet was searching for one chink in the incredible armor Clay Buchholz brought with him to Louisville, Ky., on Memorial Day.
Sweet, manager of the Triple-A Louisville Bats, watched helplessly for nearly two hours as the Red Sox farmhand, pitching for the Pawtucket Red Sox, mowed down his lineup like it was filled with Little Leaguers.
Buchholz pitched a perfect game through eight innings — 24 batters faced and 24 outs — on Monday.
But the first pitch to the first batter in the ninth was a base hit to left field.
"I'm the kind of guy that looks at how guys react when faced with adversity," said Sweet. "And on this day, that hit was the only thing we could get off him. I remember looking out at Buchholz's body language, to see how upset he was, did he drop his head because the perfect game was over. The thing was we were still in the game (losing 3-0). A few hits here and there and we're back in it."
So what did Sweet see?
"He was a professional. He didn't show me anything negative. He just stayed focused," recalled Sweet. "So what does he do on his next pitch? He throws a 97 mile per hour fastball for a strike. It was his best pitch of the night. I remember thinking, 'Wow.'"
True to form, Buchholz struck out the next two hitters and induced a grounder to short to end the game. Buchholz got his one-hitter on just 96 pitches.
"I've seen a lot of games and that was one of the best pitched games I've ever seen," said Sweet, the reigning International League Manager of the Year. "The stuff he threw at us would been the same for major league hitters. His fastball, curveball and changeup were all too good. He had good command (throwing 70 of 96 pitches for strikes). The fact that he was throwing that velocity in the ninth inning, and the ease with which he threw says something."
Sweet, knowing about Buchholz's prowess on the mound, said his team came in with a game plan on Monday — take as many pitches as possible and try to get him out of the game early.
"Our thought process was to try and get deep counts and get him out of game," said Sweet. "But we had no chance. He was strike one, on everybody, all night. It's the best pitch in baseball, the first pitch strike."
Sweet says that if Buchholz, who's 3-0 with a 1.30 ERA while allowing only 24 hits in 48-plus innings with Pawtucket, deserves to be pitching before crowds of 40,000 every fifth day.
"It's hard to believe (the Red Sox starting rotation is) that good," said Sweet. "The pitcher I saw on Monday is a guy that would be in the starting rotation of almost every club in baseball, maybe even at the top of the rotation of many teams."
Sweet had heard about Buchholz's supposed immaturity. One eight-game stretch in 2008, that included an 0-6 record and an 8.29 ERA, got the fireballer sent to the minors.
But Sweet sees a mature pitcher now.
"He's still a young kid," said Sweet. "And Boston is not in a situation where they don't have to rush anybody to the major league club. Personally, I would like to see him up the Red Sox soon, at least before we play Pawtucket again."
E-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.