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Closing Time: A step forward for Clay Buchholz in win vs. Indians

05.11.12 at 11:08 pm ET
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The Red Sox have been desperate for quality starts, and no one has inspired more desperation than Clay Buchholz.

The right-hander allowed five or more earned runs in each of his first six starts of the year, posting a major league-worst 9.09 ERA and 2.02 WHIP. He’d been a mess, seemingly reluctant to use a changeup that had long been his most dominant weapon and unable to locate his fastball consistently. In six starts, he was averaging about 5 1/3 innings, and most recently, he was shelled by the Orioles last Sunday for five runs on seven hits in just 3 2/3 innings.

And so, Friday’s outing represented something of a landmark in the team’s season. For the first time all year, Buchholz managed to control the damage done by an opposing lineup, allowing the Indians four runs (three earned) on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings. At the time he left the game (with the bases loaded and one out), the Sox were up, 7-1, in an eventual 7-5 victory.

Still, while he recorded his first quality start of the season, Buchholz was not dominant. Far from.

For just the second time in his career, he did not record a strikeout in a start. (The first came on Aug. 20, 2008, and immediately preceded a demotion to Double-A for Buchholz.) He allowed eight hits (six singles, two doubles), walked three, hit a man and was the beneficiary of multiple critical defensive plays by his outfielders that kept the game at bay.

Nonetheless, for Buchholz, the final line represented a potential life raft in a season where he has been adrift in unfamiliar waters. For the first time this year, he allowed fewer than five earned runs, thus snapping a string of six straight starts of such a yield (the longest by a Sox starter since Red Ruffing had eight straight starts in which he gave up at least five or more earned runs in 1925).

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

Clay Buchholz gave the Red Sox their first quality start in seven games. It was just the 14th quality start of the year for the Red Sox, a total that is tied for 24th in the majors.

Daniel Nava offered the Red Sox a jolt in the second day of his callup. After going 1-for-2 with a double and a walk on Thursday, he went 1-for-3 with a double and two walks on Friday.

But his impact was more far-reaching than that. Nava delivered one of the more dynamic performances of his career, not only at the plate but also defensively in left field, where he made three critical plays. Nava threw out a runner at the plate to end the second, and then the next inning had run-saving efforts on back-to-back plays. He fielded a double off the Green Monster to keep a baserunner from scoring from first with two outs, and then on the next play, he ranged far to his right to track down a liner down the left field line to keep a couple runs off the board. Moreover, on the bases, he looked like a crash-test dummy while diving around the bases with multiple head-first slides.

Adrian Gonzalez continued to show signs of getting hot while riding his textbook swing to the opposite field. He went 2-for-2 with two doubles (flicking one down the left-field line, rifling another off the Wall in left-center), walking twice and getting hit by a pitch. His five times on base matched his most in a Red Sox uniform. In his last eight games, he’s hitting .405 (15-for-37) with a .463 OBP, .568 slugging mark and six doubles.

Dustin Pedroia continued his tremendous start to the 2012 season, going 3-for-4 with a double and sac fly while driving in three. On the year, the Sox second baseman is now hitting .316 with an .904 OPS, five homers and 17 RBI.

Cody Ross continued to deliver what manager Bobby Valentine characterized as a larger-than-expected contribution against right-handed pitchers. Against starter Ubaldo Jimenez, Ross reached base in all three of his plate appearances, smashing an RBI double and walking twice. On the season, he now is hitting .266 with four homers and an .811 OPS against right-handers.

Will Middlebrooks after a two-game “drought” without an extra-base hit, jumped on an 80 mph slider from Jimenez with the bases loaded in the bottom of the first of a scoreless game. His two-run double gave the Sox a lead they never relinquished. Though he went 0-for-3 (with a walk) over the rest of the game and stranded six runners, Middlebrooks now has 11 RBI and eight extra-base hits in his first eight big league games.

Nick Punto singled to lead off the second inning, snapping an 0-for-19 drought.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

David Ortiz left the game in the bottom of the seventh inning due to soreness in his left heel.

Bobby Valentine waited too long to get his bullpen ready behind Buchholz. Thus, it was not until the right-hander loaded the bases with one out that Valentine could summon a reliever into the contest. By that point, it was too late to smother the most significant Indians rally of the night and to throw the game into jeopardy.

— The bullpen, an area of strength for the Red Sox for much of the past three weeks, proved wobbly. Rich Hill could not command his fastball or curve after entering Friday’s game in relief of Buchholz. He walked in one run, but then came back to elicit a grounder. However, Will Middlebrooks muffed the ball for an error that led to an unearned run. Andrew Miller gave up a hard run-scoring single to a left-hander. Franklin Morales allowed two baserunners while recording just one out in the eighth before Vicente Padilla came on to retire the two batters he faced; Padilla has now stranded all 11 baserunners he’s inherited this year.

Then, entrusted with a 7-4 lead in the ninth, closer Alfredo Aceves turned what should have been a comfortable advantage into a nail-biter. He gave up a run on two hits and a walk, and while he did technically close out the contest, he did so by the narrowest of margins, stranding runners on second and third by getting Johnny Damon to fly out to center.

— The infield defense was also problematic, as Middlebrooks committed his third error in eight games on the seventh-inning groundball, while Adrian Gonzalez and Mike Aviles botched a rundown (Gonzalez made a throw, and after gathering it in with an athletic catch, Aviles proved overly aggressive in trying to tag the runner, allowing him to scoot around him and reach second base safely).

Jarrod Saltalamacchia went 0-for-5 with a strikeout and left eight runners on base. However, he also made a tremendous defensive play to end the second, blocking the plate with his leg to deflect Jack Hannahan wide of the plate on his slide, thus permitting the catcher to tag the runner out for the final out of the inning.

Read More: adrian gonzalez, Clay Buchholz, Cody Ross, Dustin Pedroia
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