Friday, September 4, 2009

Clay Keeps Winning

It seems the statements of Clay Buchholz's demise were a little too early in coming. That includes the one I made a couple of weeks ago, saying he had blown his shot to be the #3 starter.


Last night Clay walked into Boston's House of Horrors - Tropicana Field - and pitched six strong innings to lead Boston to a 6-3 win. The Rays are now six games behind Boston in the wild card race while Texas is now behind by three games.


I don't use the phrase "house of horrors" lightly here. Boston's two wins in this series gives them a record of just 4-14 in Tampa for 2008-2009 seasons. So for Buchholz to pick the Sox up and get the win was huge.


Clay gave up six hits and three runs over his six innings, while striking out three. He had decent control (61.5% of his pitches were for strikes) and got ahead early in a lot of counts (threw first-pitch strikes to 64% of batters he faced). He also followed the lead of Paul Byrd from a few games back and pitched to contact; more than a third of his strikes were put into play.


I was especially impressed with the way he bounced back after a rough first inning. That inning (two runs, three hits and a walk for Tampa) is the kind of inning that would have totally derailed Clay back in '08 or even earlier this year. Instead he gave up just one more run and went 1-2-3 in three of the next five innings. Clay showed the mental toughness that he was missing before last night. If this is a permanent addition to his makeup, Boston's faith in him may be justified after all.


After Clay left in the sixth, the Sox rolled out what may be the deadliest 1-2-3 combo in the game right now. Wagner pitched a scoreless seventh in his ongoing effort to make me look like a chump. Then Daniel Bard went through the eighth before Papelbon came on in the ninth and toyed with the three batters Tampa sent to the plate for his 34th save of the year. With one more save Papelbon will have 35+ saves in each of his first four years in the majors. Paps hasn't surrendered an earned run since August 11, lowering his ERA from 2.17 to 1.84. That's the kind of domination that you like to see from your bullpen and your closer.


Boston's bats got going early. A pair of singles from V-Mart and Youk in the first were followed by a long double from Jason Bay that drove both runners in. That was followed in the second by another solo shot from Rocco Baldelli. Tampa tied at at 3 in the in the bottom of the fourth before Mike Lowell hit a sac fly to center in the sixth for what proved to be the winning run. The final two runs in the seventh were just icing on the cake. Of Boston's six runs, four were scored with two outs on the board or on plays that resulted in the second out of the inning. The Sox have really begun to come through in the clutch when they're down to their last out.


Jason Bay now has 96 RBI on the year, four off his expected 100 RBI level. As I said before, Bay should get some votes for AL MVP. He is second in walks, third in RBI, fifth in homers, sixth in OPS and ninth in runs scored and slugging percentage. If his batting average were closer to .300 (it's currently .260), he'd be getting a lot more buzz.


Youk went 3-5 with two runs scored and a RBI. He's now batting .316 on the year with a team best .421 OBP. Youk should also garner a few MVP votes; he is second in OBP and OPS, third in slugging percentage, eighth in batting average and ninth in runs scored (tied with Bay). Again, I am not saying he should win. But Youk, between his bat and his glove, definitely should be in the conversation.


Ellsbury went 1-3 with a walk last night and scored a run. But the bigger news is that he stole two more bases, giving him 58 on the season. Jacoby is now alone as the AL steals leader. Carl Crawford trails him with 55. I don't know about you, but I love seeing a speedster in the Boston lineup. The last guy who even came close to stealing bases like this was Otis "White Lines" Nixon, who stole 42 bases in 1994 during his only season with the Sox. But Ellsbury is right up there with Tris Speaker as the best stolen base artist in Boston history.


Boston comes out of Tampa winning two of three from the Rays. Now they move on to the White Sox for four games. If they can dominate Chicago like they did in Fenway earlier, the Sox will be sitting pretty heading back to Fenway on Tuesday. Tonight it's Paul Byrd against Freddy Garcia. Garcia did well against the Sox the last time they met, 6.1 innings of three run ball in a 6-3 win for the White Sox. Byrd looked outstanding in his last outing, six innings of shutout ball in a 7-0 win over the Blue Jays. But both guys can also give up the hits and runs if they are off their game. So this is a game that could go either way.

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