BOSTON -- The first man Clay Buchholz faced Monday afternoon against Baltimore singled to center. The fourth flied to the warning track in right, the fifth walked and the sixth also took right fielder Shane Victorino to the wall. There were two more singles by Orioles hitters in the third.
It was not a stretch to wonder if Buchholz was going to have much success on the afternoon. Those worries are based largely on the fact that 2012 is still fresh in the minds of many in Red Sox land. However, Buchholz and the team as a whole are in a very, very different place.
Despite some bumps along the way, Buchholz finished with seven scoreless innings in a 3-1 win to improve to 2-0 and drop his ERA to 0.64. He and Jon Lester have combined to allow three runs in 26 innings this season, including 17 scoreless frames in a row.
"Anytime you get that kind of starting pitching it's going to give us a chance to win some games late," manager John Farrell said of Buchholz and Lester after the 3-1 victory. "Those two guys, particularly, are throwing the ball well."
The 2010 Red Sox season will largely be remembered as the one that saw several significant players suffer serious injuries. Buchholz and Lester were the mainstays and the real reason the team remained somewhat relevant into September. Both finished in the top six in the Cy Young Award voting while presumed staff leader Josh Beckett languished through a miserable campaign. But due to injuries or ineffectiveness, that two-headed monster had gone into hibernation. Perhaps it is back, and with it the chance for the Red Sox to do some special things this season. A shutdown bullpen and a near perfect defense (the Sox entered the day as one of four teams in the majors yet to commit an error) certainly increase the likelihood of a winning formula on days when Buchholz and Lester take the mound.
Farrell made sure to temper any enthusiasm over his team's 5-2 start, noting that there is work to be done. Buchholz, to his credit, echoed that sentiment and focused on the negatives, a sure sign of someone intent on being there for the long haul.
"I didn't really have one thing that was working the whole day," Buchholz said. "Was up in the zone, couple of balls hit early that would've gotten out stayed in the park. Other than that it was sorta a grind there for a little bit."
What rescued Buchholz on Monday was his ability to get strikeouts in big spots. He insisted on pitching more to contact this year, but was able to bring a little extra when he needed it most on Monday. Buchholz recorded six of his eight K's via the fastball, including one to get Steve Pearce to finish the seventh with a man on second.
That was one of four strikeouts Buchholz used to end an inning. The other that caught Farrell's attention came in the third. After a pair of two-out singles gave the Orioles the game's first threat, Buchholz fell behind the dangerous Adam Jones. The two battled to a full count before Buchholz unleashed perhaps his best breaking ball of the afternoon, a doozy which froze Jones and unleashed the first real roar of the season from the fans at Fenway.
"You can't say enough for what Clay did for us," Farrell said.
Buchholz, whose ERA after two starts last year was 9.82, is the first Red Sox pitcher to go at least seven innings while allowing one run or none in each of his first two starts since Beckett in 2006.
That's all well and good. Now comes the hard part. Not only do Buchholz and Lester have work to do to maintain this early dominance, but the rest of the rotation has to do its best to follow suit. It is no coincidence that Boston is 4-0 in games started by Buchholz and Lester and 1-2 in all others.
"They're extremely important to us," Farrell said of the twin aces, "but I don't want to take anything away from everybody else. We're going to go as far as our rotation takes us."
Farrell caught himself, making sure to circle back around and take more stock of what his two star righties have done thus far.
"To have two guys at the front end of it starting the season as they are, as consistent as they are, it's a very good tone," he said. "We're very well aware that we're only seven games into this, but it's great to see them go out and really take control of the tempo of the game."
Even when they don't have their best stuff.