Confounding loss, but Clay Buchholz's outing offers big-picture focus

SEATTLE -- There have been eight pitchers this season who have had starts in which they struck out at least 10 batters and did not walk anyone.

All of those starts resulted in a victory, except one: Boston’s Clay Buchholz, who struck out 11 and issued no walks in eight innings in a game the Red Sox lost, 2-1, to the Seattle Mariners in the bottom of the ninth Friday night.

Most of the attention postgame was rightfully devoted to John Farrell’s decision to pitch to Nelson Cruz with two out and first base open in the ninth, and the manager’s subsequent mea culpa after Cruz smoked a hanging splitter from Junichi Tazawa into left field for a game-winning single.

“That's a terrible decision on my part. I own that one,’’ Farrell said after the game.

But in the big picture, Buchholz’s dominating performance against the Mariners has potentially much larger implications for the Red Sox. It was by far Buchholz’s best outing since he threw seven scoreless innings against the Phillies in the season opener, and could help to suspend the rush to judgment on the quality of the Sox rotation.

Starting with Buchholz’s 6-3 win over Toronto this past Sunday, Sox starters have posted a 2.23 ERA in their last five starts not including the beating absorbed Tuesday in Oakland by Justin Masterson, who subsequently was placed on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. That is a small sample size, but offers a snapshot of the rotation’s potential at maximum efficiency.

Buchholz’s 11 K’s represented the second time he has registered 10 or more strikeouts in a game this season (he had 10 in six innings against the Rays in Tropicana Field on April 23). It was also the fifth time in eight starts that he has held the opposition to three or fewer runs, which suggests that the prevailing narrative of Buchholz’s wild inconsistency may be exaggerated.

Buchholz’s overall ERA remains an unseemly 4.93 ERA, but take away his disastrous outing in the Bronx on April 12, in which the Yankees scored nine times in 3 1/3 innings, and that ERA drops to a much more impressive 3.40.

Friday night, Buchholz gave up a two-out double to Robinson Cano in the first, then set down 15 straight batters until Seth Smith drove a 1-and-0 two-seamer into the seats in right-center for the only Mariners run. Buchholz struck out five of the next six hitters until Kyle Seager singled with two out in the seventh.

Farrell, asked what he liked about Buchholz’s performance, said, “Everything.’’

He elaborated. “He had command, he had a lot of strikes, he had every pitch working for him tonight. He pitched ahead in the count for the most part. He was very, very good.''

Here’s a breakdown of Buchholz’s performance, courtesy of InsideEdge and BrooksBaseball.net,:

  • Of his 102 pitches, 71 were thrown for strikes, a percentage of 70 percent.

  • The Mariners swung and missed 20 times, nine times on his cutter, five on his changeup.

  • He retired the first batter in all eight innings he pitched.

  • All three of the hits he allowed were by left-handed hitters: Cano, Smith, Seager. Right-handed batters went 0-for-12 against him, and after he reached two strikes on batters, they were 0-for-16 against him.

  • Of the 51 pitches he threw out of the strike zone, Mariners hitters chased 23.

  • His fastball averaged 91 miles an hour, and touched 96.

  • Illustrating his command, all seven changeups he threw to right-handers were strikes, and seven of the 11 he threw to righties were strikes, too. Nine of the 12 curveballs he threw to left-handed hitters were strikes.

  • The most pitches he threw in any inning was 15. His last inning, the eighth, he dispatched the Mariners in nine pitches.

The kind of performance that almost always results in victory. Not this time, though, when the Red Sox could have won three in a row for the first time since the season’s first week. Now, on Saturday, they have to face King Felix Hernandez, who 10 times in his career had a 10-K, no-walk game, including three times last season.