Clay Buchholz shows his perseverance

BOSTON -- A pitcher doesn't become an ace just because he has devastating stuff.

Obviously, sizzling fastballs, knee-buckling breaking balls and deceptive changeups go a long way toward separating a pitcher from being a middle-of-the-rotation guy or a No. 1.

But no matter how good he is, no pitcher will have his best, put-away stuff every time out. There are nights when the command just isn't there on a consistent basis.

And there are nights when the opposition keeps fouling off good pitches, forcing you to work for every strike, for every out.

It is on those nights that an ace is confirmed, when despite the fact that it isn't smooth sailing from first pitch to last pitch, he still finds a way to get outs and keep his team in the game.

Boston Red Sox ace-in-the-making Clay Buchholz had one of those games Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park.

Buchholz has become one of the game's best pitchers this year. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound right-hander entered the game boasting a 16-7 record and a 2.48 earned run average, which ranked him second in the American League, trailing only Seattle's Felix Hernandez (2.35).

Buchholz did not have his best stuff, at least not good enough to put away the Orioles without running up his pitch count. He did not have his usual command and was forced by a combination of factors into many long counts. For Buchholz, the Sox's most consistent starter all year, it was more of a struggle than usual.

And yet, if not for second baseman Marco Scutaro's failure to catch Felix Pie's routine popup with a runner at first and two outs in the sixth, Buchholz and the Sox would have been ahead 1-0, and Buchholz might have been sent out by manager Terry Francona for a seventh inning of work.

But the ball grazed Scutaro's glove as he back-pedaled and landed behind him on the outfield grass, allowing Adam Jones to score the tying run.

Buchholz finished the inning but was lifted after having thrown 112 pitches, unable to get a win because the Red Sox weren't able to get any runs in their half of the sixth.

Buchholz had to pitch out of trouble virtually every inning. He did not have a 1-2-3 inning. He stranded a runner at third base three times, he went to three-ball counts on 10 of the 27 batters he faced and only 66 of his 112 pitches were strikes.

And yet, he should have wound up throwing at least six shutout innings.

After Buchholz left, the Red Sox imploded, featuring awful relief pitching, passive at-bats and downright sloppy baseball in what deteriorated into an ugly 9-1 loss to the last-place Orioles.

Boston is a woeful 1-4 on this homestand, with only Wednesday night's game remaining.

With 11 games to play, the Sox are nine games behind the first-place Yankees in the American League East and 6½ (7 in the loss column) behind the wild-card-leading Rays.

But don't blame Buchholz for Tuesday night's disaster. From Francona's perspective, Buchholz turned in an outstanding outing.

"It's not the night to jump up and down the way things unfolded at the end, but it's exciting," Francona said of Buchholz. "The kid is as legit as there is.

"He had some deep counts, but he didn't give up any runs [until Scutaro's error]," the manager added. "I thought his stuff was very good. He misfired a couple of times, but he gathered himself and made some good pitches."

The first time that happened was in the second, with Matt Wieters perched on third with one out. Buchholz buckled down, retiring Pie on a grounder to second that froze Wieters, then he whiffed Robert Andino, sneaking a called third strike past him.

The Orioles also failed to capitalize when they got a runner to third with two outs in the third and fourth innings. Buchholz got Orioles cleanup hitter Luke Scott to ground weakly to second, ending the third, and he caught Andino looking again at a breaking ball in the fourth.

In the sixth, Buchholz fanned Scott swinging on a full-count 94 mph fastball and slipped a 95 mph fastball past Wieters for his fifth and final strikeout before Jones' single and Scutaro's error sent the Sox spiraling out of control.

So once again, Buchholz showed his mettle on the mound, holding the opposition to two runs or fewer for the seventh time in his past eight starts and for the 19th time in 27 starts overall. It was the ninth time this year he didn't permit an earned run.

"His stuff is electric. His weapons continue to improve all the time," Francona said.

"One of my goals before the season was to be consistent," said Buchholz, whose ERA dipped to 2.39. "If I had a bad start, I wanted to make sure I came back strong and didn't have bad days back to back."

The bad starts have been few and far between for Buchholz, with Tuesday night's tenacious effort another example of how he has continued to find ways to stifle the opposition, even when nothing comes easily.