Clay Buchholz made a triumphant return Saturday (July 14) after being sidelined for almost a month with esophagitis. The bullpen and offense just could not back him up.
Before the illness, Buchholz was on fire. In his four starts prior to going down with esophagitis, he was 4-0, with a 2.40 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 30 innings pitched.
Before Saturday's game, he was 8-2 with a 5.53 ERA. But it really is his last seven starts that have Red Sox fans excited.
Tom Caron of NESN summed it best when he tweeted:
Clay Buchholz is proof that performance can't be gauged by W-L rec. In 1st 7 starts, he was 4-1 w/ a 8.31 ERA. In last 7 he's 4-1 w/ a 3.23— Tom Caron (@TomCaron) July 14, 2012
Although his last start against Miami (on June 19) was a little bump in the road (when he allowed five earned runs), his numbers were trending in the right direction.
He continued that trend Saturday.
Buchholz looked strong and struck out Elliot Johnson to start the night. He got Carlos Pena to fly out to left and struck out Ben Zobrist looking to end the first inning.
Buchholz started the second inning by striking out B.J. Upton, got Luke Scott to ground out and got Jeff Keppinger to ground out to short. Buchholz was rolling. His control, in particular, was very impressive.
Tom Britton of The Providence Journal tweeted:
Buchholz's three called strikeouts matches the number he had in the last three starts combined (called, specifically).— Tim Britton (@TBritton_Projo) July 14, 2012
The only problem was that Tampa Bay ace David Price was having an equally great start to the game as he only allowed one baserunner in three innings.
Buchholz gave up his first hit of the night to start the third inning as Desmond Jennings lined a shot to right field. Jose Molina followed with a single to right, sending Jennings to third. There were runners at the corners with no outs. Sean Rodriguez lined to center for a sac fly, and Johnson flied to right. Buchholz got Pena to fly to right, and Buchholz limited to damage to only one run.
Boston responded in the top of the fourth. After Price struck out Pedro Ciriaco, David Ortiz singled to center. After Cody Ross struck out, it seemed Price was simply going to dominate the night. Then, Middlebrooks stepped to the plate and crushed his 11th home run of the season giving Boston a 2-1 lead.
It was a much-needed boost for Middlebrooks, who has been struggling recently. Before Saturday's game, Middlbrooks was hitting just .150 with one home run and one RBI in his previous five games.
In the bottom of the fourth, Buchholz got Zobrist to pop out, struck out Upton and got Scott looking.
The Red Sox almost blew it open in the fifth. Price walked Kelly Shoppach to start the inning, and Brent Lillibridge followed with a single to the centerfield. Nava followed with a hard shot to right field, but it was right to Zobrist.
Ellsbury hit a single to left field. The Red Sox had the bases loaded with only one out. Ciriaco lined one to right field, and Shoppach, looking impossibly slow, was gunned down at the plate after he tagged up at third. Actually, Shoppach never even touched the plate.
Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe tweeted:
Jose Molina knows his business at the dish. Shoppach couldn't get to the plate.— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) July 15, 2012
Keppinger started the bottom of the fifth with a double, and Jennings placed a perfect sacrifice bunt down the the first base line to send Keppinger to third. Molina was back in the thick of things when he hit a hard grounder to short.
Mike Aviles botched the play, and Tampa Bay tied the game on his error. But Buchholz struck out Rodriguez and Johnson back to back, and once again, limited the damage to only one run.
Price got Ortiz to pop out to start the sixth. Cody Ross followed with a walk and advanced to second on passed ball by Molina. Ross took third on a Middlebrooks groundout and scored when Price threw a wild ball to third base that sailed over Keppinger's head. Ross was bluffing down the third base line and would have been out on a clean throw.
Peter Abraham noted the base running play is a Bobby Valentine move:
The bluff down the third base line is something Bobby V likes that others call bush. But that's 2 runs it has produced this year.— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) July 15, 2012
Bush or not (and I'm not sure why it is a bush league move), it gave Boston a 3-2 lead against one of the best pitchers in the league.
Buchholz picked up where he left off and had an easy 1-2-3 sixth. He only needed eight pitches to get through the inning.
Price matched Buchholz's sixth by cruising through the top of the seventh. He made easy work of Shoppach, Lillibridge and Nava.
Buchholz seemed to lose a little steam to start the seventh as he walked Scott to start the inning. It was his first walk of the night. He followed by hitting Keppinger. Jennings placed yet another perfect sac bunt down the first base line advancing Scott and Keppinger.
With that, Buchholz's night was over. There will be a debate in the days to come as to whether Buchholz should have been in the seventh inning in the first place.
Matt Albers entered the game and intentionally walked pinch-hitter Hideki Matsui (Matsui pinch hit for Molina). But the intentional walk backfired as Albers walked pinch-hitter Jose Lobaton with the bases loaded to tie the game 3-3.
Johnson followed with a sac fly to centerfield to give Tampa Bay a 4-3 lead. Buchholz was on the hook for the baserunners, and his nice performance was largely wasted by the ineffective Albers. Andrew Miller replaced Albers with two outs in the seventh. Miller struck out Pena to end the seventh.
The final line on Buchholz: 6.1IP, 3H, 4ER, BB, 8K, HBP.
It was the low point of the night for the Sox pitching staff as they gave up two runs without the Rays even needing the benefit of a hit.
Ellsbury started the top of the eighth with a double down the right field line. Ciriaco was unable to to advance Ellsbury when he popped out on a bunt attempt. Ortiz walked, and that ended Price's night. Joel Peralta came on in relief to face Cody Ross. Peralta made easy work of Ross and Middlebrooks, thus wasting the leadoff double by Ellsbury.
The big debate in the days to come is Valentine's decision to have Ciriaco try to bunt with Ellsbury on second with no outs.
Twitter responded immediately:
Peter Abraham tweeted:
6 outs left. Giving one away, even if it gets the runner over, is a mistake. Hated that call.— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) July 15, 2012
Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com tweeted:
Agreed. Even w/ injuries to lineup, Sox have bunted far too much this year @stataz why bunt in that situation? Play for 1 run on the road?— Sean McAdam(@Sean_McAdam) July 15, 2012
The bottom of the eighth was no better for the Red Sox as Miller gave up a home run to Upton and a double to Keppinger. Miller was lifted for Melancon. Melancon got Jennings to ground out to end the eighth.
Fernando Rodney came in to try to close out the game in the ninth. Aviles greeted him with a single up the middle. Jarrod Saltalamacchia pinch hit for Shoppach and struck out. Lillibridge struck out, and Nava popped out to left to end the game.
It was an unfortunate loss for the Red Sox. Buchholz pitched extremely well coming off the DL, and the Red Sox squandered an opportunity to take the first two games of the series. As for Valentine's decision to have Ciriaco bunt and put Buchholz out there in the seventh—let the debate begin.