Clay Buchholz was the worst starting pitcher in baseball for the better part of two months, his earned run average so high that looking at the scoreboard made the righthander wince.
“It happened quick,’’ Buchholz said. “You never want to go out there and give up five or six runs in a game and it happened five or six times to me.’’
As a result, Buchholz almost certainly isn’t going to make the All-Star team and get votes for the Cy Young Award like he did in 2010. But he can still be the same pitcher he was that season.
The evidence was there Thursday night when Buchholz threw nine terrific innings in a 7-0 victory over the first-place Baltimore Orioles.
“It was spectacular,’’ manager Bobby Valentine said.
Buchholz allowed four hits, one walk and struck out six. With his changeup back under control, Buchholz has given up only four earned runs over 24 innings in his last three starts, dropping his ERA from 7.84 to 5.77.
It was the first shutout by a Sox pitcher this season and the first for Buchholz since June 4, 2010 against Baltimore. Buchholz has three shutouts in his career, all against the Orioles.
The Orioles hit Buchholz hard in two previous meetings this season, scoring 10 runs on 13 hits with eight walks in nine innings. But they did not advance a runner past second base on Thursday.
“After seeing him a couple times this year, we had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to go out there and do,’’ said Baltimore’s Chris Davis. “We knew he was throwing the ball well lately. His changeup was really good tonight, his breaking ball was there when he needed it and he did a good job of keeping us off balance and throwing strikes. It seemed like every hitter he was ahead of, and you’ve got to tip your hat to him.’’
The changeup is making the biggest difference for Buchholz. When located well, the off-speed pitch improves the effectiveness of his fastball. When it’s not, as was the case earlier in the season, it’s a pitch that gets mashed.
“My grip was a little off. I was able to free that up a little bit,’’ said Buchholz, whose 2011 season ended in June because of a back injury. “It’s been a pitch that we tried to work on for a long time and I noticed it wasn’t the same grip I had in past years and it’s coming back.’’
Said Valentine: “When you have a good changeup it’s the best pitch in baseball. It gets people off your fastball. It allows you to throw something when you’re behind in the count that’s other than a fastball, which is the pitch they’re trying to time. When you can break a hitter’s timing you have a good chance of getting them out.’’
Buchholz (6-2) also is working on a split-finger fastball taught to him by Josh Beckett, along with the curveball. The mix allowed him to throw 78 of 125 pitches for strikes as the Sox snapped a three-game losing streak and ended a run of seven straight victories for the Orioles at Fenway Park.
Confidence also plays a role for Buchholz. Unlike some of his more assured rotation mates, Buchholz sometimes lets a bad pitch linger and turn into a bad inning. But when he’s going well, he works at a quick tempo and pays only the required attention to men on base, not an inordinate amount.
“When he’s competing against just the hitter and not competing against himself to find his stuff and his command, it looks pretty good,’’ Valentine said.
Orioles starter Brian Matusz dominated the Red Sox at Camden Yards on May 22, allowing one run on two hits over 6 1/3 innings and striking out nine. But he didn’t make it out of the third inning this time.
The Sox scored two runs in each of the first three innings and five were charged to Matusz (5-6).
Dustin Pedroia drew a walk with one out in the first. Kevin Youkilis singled and Will Middlebrooks walked with two outs to load the bases for struggling Adrian Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, hitting sixth in the order for the second straight night, lined a 1-and-1 slider down the right-field line. The ball deflected off the short wall and rolled far enough to give him a two-run double.
Darnell McDonald walked to start the bottom of the second inning and raced to third on a broken-bat single by Kelly Shoppach.
Daniel Nava walked to load the bases for Pedroia, who was hitless in eight at-bats since returning from a thumb injury that cost him six games.
Pedroia grounded to shortstop for what could have been a double play. But second baseman Robert Andino threw the ball wildly to first base as Pedroia hustled down the line and it bounced into the stands. Two runs scored.
When Gonzalez singled to start the third inning, Orioles manager Buck Showalter walked purposely to the mound to lift Matusz.
Miguel Gonzalez struck out Mike Aviles before McDonald doubled off the wall in left, sending Gonzalez to third base. Nava grounded a single into right field. Gonzalez scored and so did McDonald when Endy Chavez overran the ball.
Nava, who is hitting .306 with 18 RBIs in 27 games, doubled in the eighth inning and scored on a double by Youkilis. The Sox are 7-0 in games Nava has hit first.