Thursday, August 20, 2009

Big Win For Clay

This was Clay Buchholz's most impressive game of his short professional career. And yes, that includes his no-hitter from two years ago.

Yesterday, Buchholz found himself facing his third ace in a row. Previous outings against the Yankees' Sabathia and Detroit's Verlander had been solid, but ended in losses. Last night Clay faced off against Roy Halladay. Did any of us think that the results would be different the third time around?

Well, they were. Buchholz was solid, scattering six hits over six innings and surrendering just one run. At the same time, Halladay imploded, giving up five runs and eight hits in five innings. The result was a surprisingly easy 6-1 Boston victory in Toronto and an unexpected chance at a sweep tonight.

Buchholz didn't have great stuff last night; he threw only 57% of his pitches for strikes and threw first-pitch strikes to only 48% of the batters he faced. But what he did well was get out the batters he was supposed to get out. When Buchholz was ahead in the count, batters went 0-8 against him. And when things got hairy, Buchholz got the outs he needed. The sixth inning is the perfect example. With the bases loaded and two outs, Buchholz goes 2-0 to Encarnacion and then gets him to fly out to center. Last year (or even last month) Buchholz would have collapsed in that situation. Now he gets the out.

I'm not going to say that Buchholz is now on the road to greatness. But what we are seeing from him now is something we haven't seen in a while from him; sustained solid performance. In his last three outings he has allowed no more than two runs in any game. Buchholz has gone from walking more batters than he struck out (5/3 against the Yanks) to a positive ratio last night (1/4). Clay has gone a minimum of six innings in each outing and lowered his ERA from 6.05 to 3.99 after last night. Right now Buchholz looks like a solid #3 or #4 pitcher. And if he can be just that for the Sox right now, then their chances going forward will greatly improve.

The bullpen continues to impress. Ramirez, Oki and Saito took an inning each and combined for six strikeouts and three innings of no-hit, no-run pitching. Just some solid, solid work.

What was even more impressive than Buchholz was the lineup. Boston's bats have come alive in Toronto, combining for 16 runs and 22 hits in the last two games. Ortiz led the charge again last night with a solo shot in the second to open the scoring. And when Jason Bay hit a two-run shot to left in the fifth to make it 5-1, it marked the fifth straight game where Boston has hit two or more homers. Victor Martinez added one more in the ninth (a solo shot) to make it 6-1.

Martinez has been a HUGE addition to this team. Without his bat the Sox may have fallen multiple games behind the Rangers in the wild card chase and completely lost the Yankees in the AL East. For the month of August, V-Mart is hitting .333 with a .975 OPS. Can you imagine this lineup without him? Who would have replaced Tek over the past two games? Kottaras? Never mind the way that V-Mart extends the lineup. Look at how it has helped Youkilis. For the month of August he is batting .372 with an OPS of 1.067. Those are the best monthly totals Youk has had since May.

But in the end it could be an emergent Buchholz that brings this team to the post-season. If he can keep this up, and Tim Wakefield returns in his old form, then the Sox will have a solid rotation that can go 6+ innings every night. Add that to a resurgent offense and solid pen and the Sox are looking a lot better today that they did three weeks ago.

Tonight is the series finale before the Sox head home for a massive three-game tilt with the Yankees. Jon Lester takes the mound against Brett Cecil. Cecil was a first-round draft choice for the Jays in 2007 and blew through their farm system in just two years. He's got a bit of the Daisuke 2008 vibe; Cecil is 5-1 even though he has a 4.35 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP. He has faced Boston one other time this year and they pounded Cecil to the tune of 11 hits and 8 runs in 4.2 innings. Compare that to Lester, who is 2-1 against Toronto this year with a 2.33 ERA. If past performance predicts future events, the Sox could very well sweep tonight. And that would be a great way to into the series against the Yanks.

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