Red Sox rotation shuffle bears fruit

OAKLAND, Calif. -- So what kind of progress did Clay Buchholz make in his fourth start of the 2011 season?

"He won,'' Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

For the first time this season, there was a "W" after Buchholz's name in the box score.

"Always feels good to be the winning pitcher,'' said Buchholz, who had been 0-2 with a no-decision before Wednesday's 4-1 win against the Oakland Athletics, "but that was yesterday.''

Well, no it wasn't. But that's Buck-speak for it's done, good, thanks and wind me up five days from now.

One pitch into his start Wednesday, he was down 1-0, Coco Crisp launching a fastball over the right-field fence for his first home run of the season.

That was six homers in 15 innings this season for Buchholz, compared to nine in 173 2/3 innings last season.

"Guess I can only give up three more the rest of the season,'' he said.

Buchholz did not allow Oakland another run the rest of the afternoon. Baserunners? Oh, there were plenty of those, as Buchholz had only one clean inning, the third, while giving up six hits and walking four. But he also exhibited a trait he showed often last season, an ability to navigate whatever peril he created for himself.

"That's why, as far as last year, I think that's why [my performance] was so good,'' Buchholz said. "I had a lot of guys on base last year and seemed to find a way to get out of it, limiting the damage. It's definitely a big thing. First pitch of the game, home run, it can go south really quickly there."

Buchholz also got a huge assist from Daniel Bard, who replaced him with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth, on Ryan Sweeney's double and two walks, and left the sacks exactly as he found them. The Athletics stranded 15 runners on base and went just 3-for-15 with runners in scoring position.

"I think he's done that four times in my career, come in with the bases loaded and less than two outs,'' Buchholz said of Bard.

Impressed by Buchholz's recall? So was Bard.

"That's good,'' Bard said. "I think he owes me a dinner.

"Just kidding. He battled his butt off. He probably had a few pitches taken away from him that got him in that jam.''

Last week, the Red Sox had made two full rotations through the starting five and had just begun a third when rain washed out John Lackey's start against the Tampa Bay Rays. Francona took advantage of that act of nature to reshuffle the rotation. He skipped Lackey, pushed Daisuke Matsuzaka back a day and lined up Lackey to face the Athletics.

So, how has that worked out? Well, before Tito's shuffle, the rotation had a 6.83 ERA, giving up 44 earned runs in 58 innings. Then, on Friday night, Buchholz gave up three runs and walked a career-high five batters in a 7-6 loss to Toronto.

Since then, the five Sox starters have combined to post a 1.15 ERA (4 ER in 31 1/3 IP) with none of the five giving up more than one run. The latest to add to that run was Buchholz, who gave up the home run to Crisp on his first pitch of the game, then held the Athletics scoreless until departing with the bases loaded with one out in the sixth.

The day before, Lackey held the Athletics to a first-inning run and, according to one scout, looked "better than I've seen him in the last three years.''

Francona wasn't heaping credit on the shuffle, saying the whole idea was to minimize the impact on the other starters, not Lackey.

"It was hard on him,'' Francona said.

But a huge relief for the team.

"They've all thrown the ball much better and made big pitches when they needed to," said Jed Lowrie, who hit one of the team's three home runs Wednesday. "Getting all those guys on track, it was only a matter of time. They're good pitchers.''

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.