Before he continued his fight back to form, Clay Buchholz played catch with himself.
In the clubhouse before the game, Buchholz — the Sox righthander whose recent strong starts stand in juxtaposition to his mercurial beginning to the season — reclined in a black chair, alone, eyes fixed on a TV. He tossed a baseball into his glove six times — pop! pop! pop! — and took a swig of energy drink. He was locked in, and silent.
Hours later, he had another start that provided hope he’s back: six innings, 10 hits, four earned runs, three strikeouts, and no walks in the Sox’ 5-4 win over the Royals Friday night at Fenway.
“He’s been outstanding,” manager John Farrell said of Buchholz, who has thrown at least six innings in his last five starts. “One walk allowed in the [last] five starts he’s made. [The Royals are] a good, aggressive-swinging team. It was on the plate, so they’re going to get some hits, but he didn’t compound things by issuing any base on balls and potential additional runners. He’s confident that he’s going to execute the pitch. He might miss location inside the strike zone, but still, he’s been in a much better place in his five starts.”
It wasn’t Sunday, when the Texan pitched a complete-game, three-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts that evoked memories of his dominant 2013, when he was 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA.
“That’s the Clay we know,” catcher David Ross said of that performance.
But it wasn’t the start of this season either, when his ERA ballooned to 7.02 by the end of May. Then came his trip to the DL, and his five starts since have been encouraging.
“Felt really good,” said Buchholz (5-5, 5.46). Buchholz started and won the last game before the All-Star break.
“Felt a little weird going out there and not being on the field for three days prior. The way the guys fought back tonight that was sort of reminiscent of last year.”
Against the free-swinging Royals, Buchholz worked through several jams.
It started early. After striking out Kansas City center fielder Lorenzo Cain, Buchholz allowed a double off the Green Monster to second baseman Omar Infante. Eric Hosmer’s single scored Infante, and after 12 pitches, the Royals led, 1-0.
Then, the Sox’ stout defense, in what would prove to be a recurring trend for the rest of the game, aided Buchholz when he most needed it. Daniel Nava leapt to catch Salvador Perez’s roped line drive to left field, and Ross ended the inning by throwing out Hosmer, who was trying to steal second.
In the third inning, Buchholz induced three grounders. The first was to Xander Bogaerts at third, and the next two were sharply hit to shortstop. Stephen Drew fielded both with ease, and ended the inning trotting to the dugout.
“Him and Dustin Pedroia up the middle — I don’t see a better duo,” Buchholz said. “When the ball is hit to him, he makes all the bad hops look routine. And that’s pretty tough to do, especially at this level. He takes away runs on the field.”
The toughest work was yet to come. In the fourth, after Infante led with a single and Hosmer roped a hard ground ball down the first base line, Buchholz gave up two RBI singles, and the Royals took a 3-1 lead. True to form, though, the Sox’ defensive acumen helped Buchholz out of what could have been a game-deciding inning.
“It was tough,” he said. “They were swinging. I was trying to get ahead in the count. They were swinging at all pitches I was trying to get ahead in the count with — and hitting them. We made a couple good defensive plays that inning, too, to minimize the damage.”
On his 104th and last pitch of the night, Buchholz threw a fastball to Nori Aoki. The Royals right fielder smacked the ball right back to the mound, where Buchholz made a sleek stab at the ball and found it in his glove.
He jogged toward first, then scooped the ball, underhand, to Mike Napoli, who caught the ball to end the inning. He ended the day as he started it, with easy tosses into a mitt. This time, though, he wasn’t alone.