Under normal circumstances, Jarrod Saltalamacchia doesn’t consider himself superstitious.
Then he watched one Clay Buchholz strikeout turn into nine, then 10, then a career-high 11.
One hitless inning turned into three, then five, then seven.
Buchholz was almost effortlessly weaving together a no-hitter.
Inning after clean inning, Saltalamacchia found himself repeating the same routine.
“I was sitting in my same spot. I didn’t want to move,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything.”
Tampering with anything might mean disturbing whatever mojo Buchholz had going.
“My shirt was untucked for like seven straight innings,” Saltalamacchia said.
Well before Buchholz threw the first pitch of what would be an eight-inning, two-hit performance in a 5-0 win over the Rays Sunday, Saltalamacchia could tell Buchholz was loose. They both were.
Buchholz was playing clubhouse DJ.
“I felt pretty relaxed. It’s an easy clubhouse to be relaxed in,” Buchholz said.
Saltalamacchia walked in, heard Three 6 Mafia’s “Sippin’ On Some Syrup” beating through the speakers, saw Buchholz in the corner, and grinned. They were in rhythm the rest of the day.
“From the get-go in the bullpen, he looked good,” Saltalamacchia said. “The ball was coming out great. Then we got in the game and it was like he just couldn’t miss my glove.”
Even the strike zone felt custom-fitted, according to Saltalamacchia.
“The umpire liked the ball down, that’s where Clay likes to live,” said Saltalamacchia. “So he did a great job just mixing pitches. He made so many good pitches, it’s hard to hit someone that throws like that.”
Buchholz retired 15 of the first 17 hitters he faced. He was in the same kind of zone as he was as a rookie in 2007 when he no-hit the Orioles. Back then, he was a 23-year-old making just his second start. He was more nervous.
“I had the captain [Jason Varitek] behind the plate calling the pitches and I didn’t want to shake him off because I was scared of him,” Buchholz said.
Sensing the possibility of history building with every pitch, Saltalamacchia made sure the mound was Buchholz’s comfort zone. At the same time, he had to retain focus.
“You obviously want to keep the flow of the game going,” Saltalamacchia said. “You want to keep him throwing strikes but you don’t want to just give in and give a heater over the middle when you know what’s on the line.
“There’s that little pressure. I think the seventh inning is where I felt like, ‘Hey, this is in sight. Let’s make some good pitches and not give this thing away.’ He just took care of the rest.”
His win-loss record against the Rays coming in (5-5) never matched his dominance against them. But with Sunday’s win, Buchholz lowered his ERA against Tampa Bay to 2.53. He struck out Evan Longoria twice, making it 11 punchouts in 33 at-bats against the Rays third baseman.
The run Buchholz is on to start the season (3-0, 0.41 ERA) can be compared with Pedro Martinez in 1998, the last Sox pitcher to hold teams to one run or fewer over at least seven innings in each of his first three outings (Martinez got a no-decision in one of his starts).
Overall, the ERA of Red Sox starters fell to 2.07. They’ve amassed 74 strikeouts. They’ve allowed two or fewer runs in seven straight starts. No one’s scored more than three runs on a Sox starter this season.
“They’ve thrown the ball unbelievable,” said Dustin Pedroia. “That’s how you win, pitching and defense and getting the big hit when you need it. That’s what the Rays have done for, you know, six years now. They’ve pitched and played great defense and got the big hit when they needed it.”
The impact of Sox manager John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves can’t be overstated, according to Saltalamacchia.
“They have a feel for these guys,” Saltalamacchia said. “They know what they’ve done in the past. There are little corrections they can make to get you out of a rut quick.”
But the starters, particularly Buchholz and Jon Lester, also came into the season confident.
“Obviously, what you’ve seen their first three starts is unbelievable,” said Will Middlebrooks. “I feel like that’s the pitchers they are.”
When Saltalamacchia saw Rays left fielder Kelly Johnson split his bat on a looper for a single in the eighth, the magic was gone, finally.
“It killed me,” Saltalamacchia said. “Because I’ve seen Clay throw really well. But today was amazing. He was just spotting every spot.”
From beginning to end Sunday, Saltalamacchia said Buchholz was as locked in as he had ever seen.
“By far,” Saltalamacchia said.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.