When he walked into the dugout after retiring the side in the fifth inning of the Red Sox’s 9-2 win over the Yankees Sunday night at Fenway Park, Clay Buchholz glanced around and waited for John Farrell to look at him.
He knows the look.
It’s the one the manager gives a pitcher when his night is done, and since Buchholz was making just his second start since spending three months on the disabled list with a neck strain he had good reason to believe the look was coming.
Even though he allowed just one run on two hits, he was at 82 pitches, eight more than he threw against Tampa Bay last Tuesday.
Coming in, Farrell emphasized he didn’t have a pitch limit for Buchholz. In fact, he was hoping he would see Buchholz pitch into the sixth. But at that point, Buchholz seemed to be reaching an unspoken line.
The look, however, never came.
“I came in after the fifth inning and no one came up to me, so I knew I was going back out,” Buchholz said.
When he did, all he needed was nine more pitches to sit down the heart of the Yankees order, using his changeup to get Robinson Cano to sky out to left, his curveball to whiff Alfonso Soriano, and a 90-mile-per-hour-fastball to get Lyle Overbay to bounce to first.
If he could have kept going, he would have.
“I was actually supposed to go out for the first hitter of the seventh until all the [Yankee] pitching changes came out,” he said.
While his second start back didn’t feel as sharp as the first — he had trouble pulling the strings on his fastball and walked four — Buchholz said he felt himself getting better as the night went on, finishing with three strikeouts and improving his record to 11-0.
“I felt like, as the game went on, I got stronger as far as my command,” he said.
The first inning was a 22-pitch struggle to find that command. He issued a leadoff walk to Curtis Granderson and paid for it when his pickoff attempt at first was wild and allowed Granderson to scoot to third. He eventually scored on an Alex Rodriguez groundout.
But he had a goal in mind.
“Obviously after throwing 22-23 pitches in the first, especially to a team like that that can take a lot of pitches and foul off a lot of balls, I definitely wanted to get through the fifth,” he said.
In all, he put the lead runner on in four innings (he plunked Chris Stewart in the third). But his defense kept him out of serious trouble by turning three double plays. In the meantime, Buchholz was able to tinker.
“The feel of it was me coming out of my delivery a little bit, especially out of the windup,” he said “Just sort of falling towards home plate and not staying back. I think that was the big key early, especially the fastball pitches. That’s something that I key off of is to stay back and was rushing a little bit and jumping out. That’s what [pitching coach Juan Nieves] told me when I came in after the third inning. You’re rushing, just stay back a little bit longer.”
He largely leaned on his cutter but did a good job of mixing in his entire arsenal.
“Because he’s got four good pitches he can go to in any count,” Farrell said. “He’s got the ability to manipulate the ball and move it off the bat head in those fastball counts, whether it’s a cutter or a sinker and I think he never feels like he’s at a disadvantage because he can do just that, execute pitches when he’s behind in the count or with men on base.”
More than anything, Buchholz said the goal is to build toward the postseason. These two starts were the first steps in a gradual process.
“Just to run back out there two starts in a row, that’s what I want to do, that’s where I want to be,” he said. “Couldn’t be any better than helping a bunch of guys that want the same goal and that’s just to go out and win games and get to October.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.