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Red Sox finally get their top-of-the-rotation starter with Clay Buchholz

07.20.12 at 1:18 am ET
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Clay Buchholz allowed one run in eight innings on Thursday against the White Sox. (AP)

Going into 2012, it was Josh Beckett and Jon Lester who were considered to be the aces of the Red Sox pitching staff. With both pitchers coming off All-Star seasons and still in their primes, it wasn’t far-fetched to think the duo could at least come close to their 2011 performances.

But through more than half a season, neither pitcher has been able to deliver the consistent dominance of a top-of-the-rotation starter. And with the July 31 trade deadline looming and rumors swirling, the need for a lockdown, consistently good arm has become the No. 1 need for a Red Sox team in the middle of a playoff race.

On Thursday night, however, more evidence emerged that the team already has just such a pitcher.

In a game in which the bats saved the night on Cody Ross’ walk-off home run, it was Clay Buchholz who allowed the Red Sox to even get to that point. With eight strong innings in which the right-hander allowed just one run on six hits and one walk while striking out six, Buchholz made a statement that he may have returned as one of the best pitchers in baseball.

“Clay was excellent,” manager Bobby Valentine said. “To walk a guy leading off an inning who walks 150 times a year is no fault. Made some good pitches on [Adam] Dunn. He came around to score after another [Paul] Konerko base hit to right, but other than that, I mean, he was perfect. He had a good breaking ball, excellent fastball, changeup down, both changeups down. Competitive the whole way. He looked great.”

Despite not earning a decision on Thursday, Buchholz’ recent streak of stellar performances went unharmed. In his last seven starts, the righty is 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA and 45 strikeouts compared to just seven walks. He has also gone at least six innings in each of those outings, matching a career-long streak that he’d previously achieved in 2010.

That is just one facet in which the 2012 edition of Buchholz is starting to resemble the one who proved so dominant in 2010 en route to his first All-Star Game, a record of 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA and a sixth-place finish in Cy Young Award voting.

“I think it’s about the same,” Buchholz said of this season compared to 2010. “My body feels strong. I feel like whenever early in the season I tried to reach back with a little extra on that one fastball, it wasn’t really much harder than now when I’m doing it.

“As far as the two-seamer goes, it’s another trust pitch. You can’t make it do something, you just have to let it go and let it work for itself.”

While his recent streak of quality performances has drawn comparisons to his All-Star 2010 season, Buchholz is doing it this season with what may be a more complete arsenal to rely on than in 2010.

In addition to his two- and four-seam fastballs, Buchholz has added a splitter while rediscovering the devastating changeup that was a centerpiece of his repertoire in past years but that eluded him in the early weeks of the season. He also has his Bugs Bunny curve in his pocket. The result in recent weeks has been a bevy of swings and misses and weak groundouts from opposing batters. On several different occasions Thursday night, Buchholz was able to strike out batters looking, something he hasn’t historically done with such consistency.

Even when White Sox hitters were getting contact on Buchholz, the results were rather weak. Many of the hits he gave up were slow dribblers that sneaked through the infield for singles. And when those singles did make their way through, Buchholz responded like a true ace by retiring the remaining batters, mostly by virtue of groundouts. Not once did Buchholz give up more than one hit in an inning Thursday night.

“Last couple times out, the two-seam fastball has been a pitch like it was several years ago for me,” Buchholz said. “I was able to throw some changeups for strikes and get some swings and misses on it, and the curveball has been my best pitch all year, so that was working for me.”

As the Red Sox and the rest of baseball turn the corner for the stretch run of 2012, pitching — and more importantly, consistent pitching — is the key for any team if they want a chance to make the playoffs.

While Lester and Beckett continue to try to find their better form, it is Buchholz who has asserted himself as the ace-caliber presence for which the Sox have been looking for all season.

“He’s got probably four plus pitches. His sinker is as filthy as I’ve seen. His changeup, splitty, whatever he calls it, is nasty,” Ross said. “Everything he throws up there has potential swing and miss. When he’s going, he’s as tough as anyone in the league. He’s proven that. He’s starting to get that confidence. And we need that.”

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