NEW YORK — Clay Buchholz had more important things to worry about than opposing pitcher Michael Pineda being accused of having a glob of pine tar smothered on the heel of his pitching hand.
“Especially on cold, windy nights, it’s tough to get a grip on a baseball. I had that incident in Toronto where I had stuff all over my body. You can use rosin, water, and sunscreen stuff. Either you have a grip on the baseball and have a semi-idea of where it’s going, or get somebody hurt,” Buchholz said.
Buchholz seemed to have a grip in a 4-1 loss to the Yankees, but not as good as Pineda’s.
Pineda outpitched Buchholz, plain and simple. But the Sox starter, who was touched for 13 hits and six runs against the Brewers in his first start, improved tremendously in his six innings, allowing two unearned runs. He came undone in the fourth after third baseman Jonathan Herrera butchered a routine grounder by Jacoby Ellsbury, leading to two runs.
Buchholz allowed two runs in the fifth on a Dean Anna homer and an Ellsbury RBI single.
“As hard as [Pineda] was throwing early, nobody wants to get hit by that, especially around the head. If you’re scuffing the ball that’s one thing — or creating more control. If it’s giving you an edge, that’s one thing. But I’ve never seen any pitcher have an edge by using it. You use it to get the best grip possible.”
Buchholz was using all his pitches and had good grasp of things until Herrera’s error.
“He was better than his last time out, better power and action. We gave them an extra out in the fourth but a positive step for him tonight,” Sox manager John Farrell said.
Ellsbury was Buchholz’s first roommate in the minors and watched him as a teammate for years. So Ellsbury’s the last person he wanted to see on base, even if the new Yankee center fielder didn’t steal anything.
But Ellsbury’s presence was felt. It was obvious by Buchholz’s pitch selection to Carlos Beltran — and his multiple throws to first base — that the Red Sox starter’s concentration was split. Never a good thing.
Ellsbury makes you nervous. There’s no getting around it.
Buchholz’s night then went from good to bad.
With Buchholz having to pitch from the stretch, Beltran singled to right. Then Brian McCann broke an 0-for-14 skid with a single to the right-field corner, scoring Ellsbury.
Alfonso Soriano knocked into a 6-4-3 double play to score Beltran for a 2-0 lead.
Buchholz, however, was locating his pitches much better than in his first outing. He was behind on the scoreboard, but ahead in terms of where he was in his first start, when he allowed a career-high 13 hits.
His velocity still peaked at 91 miles per hour, but he was locating his fastball in tough-to-hit places — high and away, busting inside to lefthanded hitters. He had a good curveball. He was using all four pitches and looked more like the Buchholz who started 9-0 last season than what he showed against Milwaukee.
Buchholz, who has a 4.40 ERA in March/April starts, his worst months, used to pitch his worst against the Yankees, but that changed last season when he went 3-0 with a 0.50 ERA and allowed just one earned run in 18 innings. That moved him to 5-5 with 5.32 ERA in 12 starts against the Bombers.
So he continued to pitch with confidence against the Yankees, only to have it derailed by one sloppy play by Herrera, who keeps proving he can’t handle third base.
Buchholz started the game by striking out Brett Gardner before allowing a single to Derek Jeter. Ellsbury was robbed of a hit by a diving Dustin Pedroia and Jackie Bradley tracked down a long fly by Beltran. Buchholz retired the side in order in the second, then allowed a harmless single to Gardner in the third.
Buchholz seemed to be sailing until Herrera’s error.
But give Buchholz credit for his recovery. By inducing the double-play grounder to Soriano and then striking out Kelly Johnson to end the fourth, it showed he was determined to overcome a tough situation.
Anna, one of the Yankee Cinderella stories who made his major league debut Friday, touched him for a homer in the fifth before Jeter doubled and was plated by Ellsbury’s single, upping the Yankee advantage to 4-0.
Clearly, Buchholz has to be at the top of his game for the Red Sox to succeed this season. The chances of surviving a subpar Buchholz or another three-month absence appear slim.
He remains Boston’s most talented pitcher, possessing five pitches he can throw for strikes. Sometimes that just isn’t enough, especially if you’re making mistakes against a good team like the Yankees.
Buchholz was charged with two earned runs, allowed seven hits, and walked no one in six innings. The optimists will say that at least he’s healthy. True, but he’s also come out of the last two starts making you wonder where that dominant pitcher that started last season so explosively has gone.
Buchholz was 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts in 2013 and made the All-Star team. We haven’t seen that guy yet but Thursday night he showed glimpses.
If it’s as simple as building up arm strength and improving with each outing, the Red Sox will wait for that.
They are also waiting for 200 innings, an injury-free season, and the dominant pitcher they’ve always believed he was.
He had a grip on things last night. Pineda simply had a better one.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.