CHICAGO -- Wednesday night’s win for the Boston Red Sox wasn’t just a case of the Sox getting off the schneid against opposing southpaws on the season. And it wasn’t just about a needed dose of Papi power when David Ortiz jacked a Carlos Rodon fastball to right field to give Boston a lead. Perhaps the biggest deal was getting a quality start from veteran right-hander Clay Buchholz, as he notched his first win of the season and the Red Sox won for the first time in a Buchholz start in 2016.
It didn’t initially look as though it would be a good turn for Buchholz at U.S. Cellular Field after he gave up a first-inning, two-run home run to Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu. On a warmer night than this, without a stiff wind to right field, that might have been the second homer in the inning, as ChiSox leadoff man Adam Eaton hit a long drive to left that came up short of the fence. In the second inning, Buchholz pitched into trouble again, putting two men on before escaping with an inning-ending double play.
“I think the biggest thing, after the second inning, in what could have been a little bit of a rocky inning, he didn’t back away from it, and he kept coming and settled into a very good rhythm,” Red Sox manager John Farrell observed after Boston's 5-2 victory.
That’s because from that point forward, Buchholz regrouped and was dominant his second and third times through the White Sox batting order, retiring 15 of the next 16 batters. Buchholz finally notched his first one-two-three inning in the third. He still was far from perfect, getting behind with first-pitch balls on six out of seven batters faced in the third and fourth innings, but he finally settled into a groove in the fifth.
A big part of Buchholz’s success was breaking with some patterns he’d fallen into, moving away from being “too fine," as Farrell had described him before the game, and establishing fastball command early to more effectively set up his breaking pitches.
“I was just trying to throw it hard, was all,” Buchholz said of going back to a fastball-first lifestyle. “I’ve been doing the first pitch of the at-bat, curveball to lefties, and I got burned on it a couple times now, so we got away from that. We went a different route, threw more fastballs first pitch than I have been, and I think that set up some of the curveballs.”
By throwing 43 fastballs among his 98 pitches -- not counting 20 cutters -- Buchholz accounted for his highest ratio of fastballs thrown in any start this season. And by re-expanding his range of pitches, he’d made the sale to batters and to plate umpire Tim Timmons that he could get strikes over with all sorts of stuff, getting swinging strikeouts in his final three innings on a fastball and a curve and called K’s on a fastball and a cutter.
“I think his pitches were working more, the curveball, the changeup were thrown for more strikes tonight,” said catcher Christian Vazquez. “He was attacking the zone with every pitch.”
“I thought the biggest thing all centers around his fastball,” Farrell said. “He was down in the strike zone; first inning, he might have been up a little bit -- the ball to Abreu -- but after that, he was in the bottom of the strike zone, and the curveball was a good complement.”
As Buchholz added, “I liked what I did with the fastball today. I think at times I’ve fallen in love with a couple of off-speed pitches and got a little cutter-happy too. The fastball set up some pitches later in the game; that’s how it’s supposed to work out, but it doesn’t always work out for you.”
That was important for a couple of different reasons: Success in a single start, to be sure, but perhaps more importantly, it was a big step back toward renewing the expectation that Buchholz should be one of the pillars of Boston's pitching staff. With both Eduardo Rodriguez and Joe Kelly working their way back toward rejoining the big league rotation later in May, the Red Sox would prefer to have their choices about who starts made difficult by getting good work from their rotation regulars.
With Buchholz coming into Wednesday’s action with an 0-3 record and a 6.51 ERA, the pressure was on for him to start turning things around sooner rather than later. The 31-year-old was ready to admit as much after the game.
“I think everybody would be lying if they said that you didn’t see your [own] numbers,” Buchholz admitted. “You see them every day -- 0-3 with a 6-something ERA is obviously not where I wanted to be. It takes a while to get those numbers back to where you want them. You just got to do it pitch by pitch and not really worry about it, but it definitely feels good after the fact that I can hopefully build off this start.”
Now that he’s off his own schneid, Buchholz has something to improve on to stay in his slot in a Red Sox rotation that should be a key to their contention during the five months to come. It had to start somewhere, and for Buchholz, that was in the Cell against the White Sox.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.