ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Sweet music has long been a part of Clay Buchholz’s repertoire, whether it’s playing guitar so skillfully in the clubhouse that Yoenis Cespedes grabs a spot on the couch to listen, or pitching like a virtuoso the way he did here Sunday afternoon.
Too often this season, his pitching has struck some dissonant chords, but that has not been the case of late. Buchholz needed just 98 pitches Sunday to shut out the Tampa Bay Rays 3-0 on three hits and no walks, and said afterward that he may have hit some high notes he’d never reached before.
“Fastball command to both sides of the plate, that’s probably the best it’s been, ever, maybe," said Buchholz, who faced just 29 batters, only two over the minimum, abetted by a first-inning double play started by Boston Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks and six strikeouts.
Manager John Farrell put the brakes on the suggestion that this may have been Buchholz’s best start ever, noting that the right-hander does have a no-hitter to his credit.
But Farrell did not skimp on the praise, either.
“Today he was extremely efficient," Farrell said. “When you consider the number of first-pitch strikes he threw, overall strikes, command of the count, multiple pitches for strikes, he was very good.
“He was able to bring his two-seamer back to the inside part of the plate to left-handers and to the outside part of the plate to right-handers. A key double play, and he was in complete command for nine innings."
Tampa Bay’s only hits were a leadoff, ground-ball single by Kevin Kiermaier in the first inning, a two-out double by Matt Joyce in the fourth and a single by Jose Molina to open the sixth. No Rays baserunner advanced beyond second base.
The Rays have now gone nearly two full seasons and 22 innings (three starts) against Buchholz without scoring a run.
“He’s always pitched well against us," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “but today there was nothing he didn’t have going on. Whether it was his two-seamer in, cutter away, curveball for a strike, elevated when he wanted to, he could have thrown a strike where he wanted to all day long."
Buchholz threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of the 29 batters he faced. When he started with a curveball, it was nine out of 10. He did not have a three-ball count in the first six innings, had just four overall, and did not have an inning in which he threw more than 14 pitches.
He set down the last dozen batters he faced after Molina’s single in the sixth.
Farrell said the key to Buchholz’s outing was the way he pitched off his fastball.
“It’s the late action and quality of location combined," Farrell said. “He puts hitters on the defensive. He sinks it, cuts it to both sides of the plate. That really slows some hitters down."
This was Buchholz’s eighth career complete game and sixth shutout, his first since July 13 in Houston, when he struck out a dozen Astros and did not walk a batter. The Sox had hoped that start, which came just before the All-Star break, signaled that Buchholz had worked out the issues that landed him on a rehab assignment to Pawtucket, but he was lit up in his next four starts for 31 hits and 23 earned runs in a span of 22 innings.
Since that stretch, however, Buchholz has turned in a quality outing in four of his past five starts, including last Tuesday in Toronto, when he shut out the Blue Jays for eight innings, then loaded the bases on two hits and a walk, all three runs scoring when Koji Uehara blew the save.
This time, Buchholz needed just eight pitches to finish off the Rays in the ninth.
“He’s throwing the ball right now like he did early last season, when he was dominant," Farrell said.
Having dispensed with four of the five starters with which they began the season -- Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront -- the Sox would love to be able to count on this version of Buchholz heading into 2015. But experience has taught them that’s hardly the safest of bets.
Buchholz has four or five more starts left this season. He will once again fall far short of 200 innings, the benchmark for a staff ace, he has won just six games and his earned run average remains an unsightly 5.40.
Still, the hope is that Buchholz will use September as a proving ground.
“Consistency, durability," Farrell said, “and going through the final month pitching the way he is now."