Clay Buchholz sticks it out

BOSTON -- The first Tampa Bay Rays batter Clay Buchholz faced on Saturday drew a walk. The second rifled his next pitch off the top of the bullpen wall for an RBI double, missing a home run by an inch or two.

After getting a couple of outs, Buchholz issued another walk and then was tagged for a three-run homer deep into the right-field seats by admitted Fenway Park hater Luke Scott on a 3-and-2 cookie of a fastball that tailed back over the middle of the plate.

Buchholz never looked comfortable in the first inning. He was leaving his pitches up and had serious command issues. And manager Bobby Valentine clearly didn't feel comfortable with the way Buchholz was pitching either, which is why he had Michael Bowden warming up as bullpen coach Gary Tuck, pinch-hitting for pitching coach Bob McClure (illness), went to check on Buchholz after the homer.

The Red Sox were in a quick 4-0 hole. It also marked the second time in as many starts that Buchholz, trying to rebound from a season cut short by back problems, had surrendered four earned runs in the first inning.

It had the look of a short day for Buchholz and a loss for the Red Sox.

But Buchholz got out of the first without further damage. And he kept grinding, finally finding his rhythm after a third-inning double by Scott that boosted Tampa Bay's advantage to 5-2. Buchholz would retire the last eight batters he faced and 15 of the final 16 after a leadoff single in the fourth.

Buchholz's teammates found their groove too, scoring eight runs in the seventh and eights innings en route to a 13-5 romp.

Buchholz threw 43 pitches over the first two innings, but his pitch count was only 104 when he was pulled after seven.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, played bombs away against Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson and Tampa Bay's relief corps.

Obviously, the Sox's offense had a lot to do with Saturday's victory. Boston racked up 15 hits, 10 of which were for extra bases, including homers by, in order, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Aviles and Cody Ross.

But this is a team that led the league in runs a year ago, so it wouldn't be a stretch to see it contending for the top mark again this season.

Buchholz's performance, therefore, was the most encouraging aspect of what became a laugher only in the late innings.

The slim right-hander didn't quit on himself. He didn't turtle on the mound. He didn't show any signs of the stress fracture in his back that limited him to 14 starts in 2011, none after June 16. He kept battling.

"He didn't really have his cutter early in the game," Valentine said. "But he got his cutter going, he got his changeup going.

"More importantly, he never gave up. It would have been easy not only for Buck but for the entire team to pack up the toolbox and go home. That was a great effort on his part. He started pitching to contact earlier in the count and throwing strikes on the outside part of the plate. He was a happy camper. It was good to get a win on a night like this."

Sox catcher Saltalamacchia had a bird's-eye view of Buchholz's improvement and tenacity.

"I think he was a little quick in the beginning, rushing to make his pitches, knowing it was an aggressive team. He was trying to be too fine," Saltalamacchia said of Buchholz's delivery.

"Each inning he got better and better. He's a competitor, and it showed tonight."

Buchholz, who earned his first win since last June at Tampa, agreed with Saltalamacchia's assessment of his mechanics.

"At the beginning of the game I was trying to be too quick to the plate from the stretch," Buchholz said. "After the third inning I settled down. I just thought pitch to pitch instead of inning to inning. I tried to get them to put the ball in play. I tried to keep the pace of the game moving."

And he succeeded, with the Rays helping out as they aggressively attacked his deliveries. Buchholz needed only 16 pitches over his final two innings to dispatch the Rays.

He'll try to take the rhythm he developed after a rocky first two innings into his next start, Friday at Fenway against the New York Yankees.

"They've got a great ballclub. I have to shut down the long innings, not throw 40 pitches in the first inning," Buchholz said.

"But I feel good out there, nothing physically lacking."

That may have been the best news of all to come out of Saturday's victory.

Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.