Is it too early for the Red Sox to give manager John Farrell a raise? Whatever the Sox are paying Farrell, they should double it considering the performances he’s been able to coax out of once-wayward starters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz this season.
Maybe Bill Belichick should see what Fix ’em Farrell knows about cornerbacks. Everyone knew that the redemptive duo of Lester and Buchholz would be the compass for the Red Sox season. Seven games into the season the Sox and their reinvigorated aces are pointing due north.
Buchholz matched Lester’s seven shutout innings on Sunday against Toronto with seven shutout innings of his own, as the resurgent Sox sent the Fenway Faithful home happy with a 3-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the home opener Monday.
Lester and Buchholz have combined to go 4-0, while allowing just three runs in 26 innings. They’ve struck out 25. Their efforts are beyond the best-case scenario for the Sox, who have put the malodorous and odious 2012 season in the rearview mirror with a 5-2 start.
“They’re stud pitchers. They’ve always been really good,” said Sox catcher David Ross. “I was excited when I signed here just to be able to catch those guys. They’re front-end starters in the rotation in anybody’s team in the major leagues. It’s nothing that is a shocker to me. They know they’re good. We know they’re good, and I enjoy catching them.”
The Red Sox Rebirth Tour finally came to Fenway Park with the club’s 102d home opener at the fabled yard on a resplendent April afternoon full of pomp, good tidings, and not much offense.
Buchholz and Orioles lefty Wei-Yin Chen matched zeros until Daniel Nava slugged a three-run homer off Chen in the seventh. Up until that frame, the Red Sox had not even had a runner reach second.
“You can’t say enough about what Clay did for us,” said Farrell. “The way Chen was pitching it was a classic pitchers’ duel and one swing of the bat becomes the difference.”
Everyone was enthused and encouraged by Buchholz’s seven-inning outing in which he allowed three singles, while fanning eight and walking four, except Buchholz.
The lanky Texan said there wasn’t one pitch he had working for him all game and called his day “sort of a grind there for a bit.”
He had only one 1-2-3 inning, the sixth, and pitched out of trouble in the third and the seventh against Baltimore, which came in leading the American League in batting average (.301) and hits (65) and was second in on-base percentage (.359) and OPS (.826).
“I think it was a grind, but most pitchers in the major leagues would take that grind,” said Ross. “He has really good stuff and knows how to work the ball around.”
Buchholz flirted with danger but went home with dominance.
He wriggled out of a key spot in the third. A pair of two-out singles by Manny Machado and Nick Markakis had runners at first and second. But Buchholz dropped a beauty of a 3-2 curveball on Adam Jones for the strikeout.
Buchholz’s best work came right before the Sox struck in the seventh.
Matt Wieters led off with a walk and advanced to second on a sharply-hit one-out grounder to second by Ryan Flaherty. Buchholz ended the threat by striking out Steve Pearce with his 113th and final pitch, a fastball on the outside corner.
“He had finished the sixth with 90 [pitches], and, even though Wieters led off the seventh getting on base, that’s Clay’s ballgame,” said Farrell. “I felt he earned that right to get through it. His stuff didn’t diminish. He showed the ability to make some big pitches in key moments. It wasn’t like he was losing command or the fastball was becoming elevated. He stayed sharp throughout. More than anything that was his inning to finish.”
Wise decision by Farrell because the normally mild-mannered Buchholz would have had to have been Tasered to prevent him from returning to the hill.
“I didn’t even hesitate. I wasn’t even looking at anybody for the seventh inning. I was running out there,” said Buchholz, the first Red Sox pitcher to go at least seven innings while allowing one run or fewer in each of his first two starts since Josh Beckett (remember that guy?) in 2006.
“It was going to have to take somebody coming up to me to not go out there. It feels good that the team has your back to do that. I didn’t feel any kind of tiredness or anything. I felt good enough to go back out there, so I appreciate that call.”
Seven games is a small sample size, but it feels like this Red Sox team has undergone an exorcism. The demons from 2011 and 2012 are gone. The clubhouse has been cleansed and Buchholz and Lester are born-again aces following the gospel of Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves.
Lester and Buchholz get lumped together as the Lost Boys of the Red Sox rotation. But that is not entirely accurate. Lester certainly had a career-worst campaign last year, but Buchholz was better than his numbers (11-8, 4.56 earned run average) would indicate.
Sandwiched between a horrific start returning from a back injury and a flailing finish, Buchholz was 8-2 with a 2.69 earned run average in 15 starts from May 11 to Aug. 16.
“Yeah, you know, I don’t feel any different than I did last year. It was just little things that didn’t go right,” said Buchholz, now sporting a microscopic 0.64 ERA.
Everything looks different about this Red Sox team so far. The team is throwing fans one big changeup.
The Sox are back in town, and they’ve brought hope with them.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.