EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 23, 2010

Sox Savior: Ace Buchholz is Cy Young contender

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

BOSTON — Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz had a shaky sixth inning against Toronto yesterday, allowing singles to the first two batters, Jose Bautista and Vernon Wells, but then the righthander got down to business — something he has done so many times this season.

Buchholz fired strike three past Adam Lind, got Red Sox killer Lyle Overbay to fly out to right field and retired John McDonald on a liner to second base.

Buchholz, who was able to pitch out of a few jams yesterday without allowing any runs, proved again that he is the ace of this Boston staff and a Cy Young award candidate.

The All-Star selection hasn't allowed an earned run in three straight starts and over his past 23 1/3 innings.

Buchholz and the Red Sox beat Toronto 5-0 here at Fenway Park in front of 37,506.

The righty picked up his 15th win and lowered his American League leading ERA to 2.26.

He pitched six innings, allowing no runs, five hits and three walks while striking out seven.

It's unbelievable that we're watching the same pitcher who in 2008 posted a 2-9 record, a 6.75 ERA and seemed to get frustrated every single time something went wrong.

"There was a couple of times (in '08) when I was wanting to go home," Buchholz said. "Now I feel like if I make a mistake, I can come back and readjust and get a ground ball out or get a ball hit in the outfield."

A different pitcher

Maybe the biggest difference between a struggling Buchholz in 2008 and a mature, top-of-the rotation Buchholz now is he is not fretting after putting runners on base and not looking for the strikeout each time he faces a jam.

His strikeout numbers actually are down this year.

Buchholz averaged approximately 7.4 strikeouts per start when he was with Portland and Pawtucket in 2007. With Boston in 2008, Buchholz averaged 4.7 strikeouts per start.

The right-hander is averaging fewer than 4.4 strikeouts per start this season.

"I think he's a different pitcher," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "When he first came up he was four-seam, straight change, big curveball. (With that) you're going to have some swing and misses, and you're going to have some louder contact when you miss with that fastball over the middle. Now, he's cutting it, sinking it, and he is getting contact."

But as Francona added, when hitters make contact off Buchholz, they don't usually make it at the sweet spot of the bat. And therefore, the contact is turning into outs.

He entered yesterday's start having earned 212 ground ball outs compared to 114 fly ball outs. That's good for a 1.86 ground ball out to fly ball out ratio, which ranked him ninth in American League.

"If there's two strikes, I think anyone who can strike out somebody is trying for the strikeout," Buchholz said. "You don't want them to put it in play if they don't have to. Up until that point ... (I) throw it in the zone and let them hit it and hopefully it's at somebody."

Working hard

Buchholz has developed ways of dealing with any negative thoughts. He has spoken with Red Sox sports psychologist Bob Tewksbury and plays the guitar before games to relax.

"It's just going out and trying to pitch to the capability that I can pitch at," he told The Eagle-Tribune in July after making the All-Star team. "I've just tried to stay constant and steady throughout the season. I think the mindset and the mental game has helped a lot."

Maybe the best example this year at the Angels on July 26. Buchholz loaded the bases with no outs on a walk, single and hit batter.

He clearly looked frustrated, but got the next two hitters to pop up to first base and the following hitter to fly out to left without a run scoring.

"When the game has started to speed up, he hasn't really let it," Francona said. "When guys get on — and when you're talking about minimizing the damage, stopping the bleeding, however you want to say it — he's been really good at that. When he's behind in the count, he can pitch his way back into the count."

The ace

Buchholz did not have pinpoint control yesterday as he walked the leadoff man in each of the first three innings and threw a first-pitch ball to 10 of 25 hitters. But again, he didn't allow any runs.

That is just one more example of how he has matured.

The Red Sox have a 17-5 record in games started by Buchholz.

Is Buchholz thinking Cy Young?

"I'm out here to pitch and help this team win," Buchholz said. "After that, whatever happens happens."

When asked when he would start thinking of himself as an elite pitcher, he replied: "It may take a few years. I haven't even had a full season in the big leagues yet."