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Clay Buchholz rocked by Yankees, prompting old questions

4/13/2015

NEW YORK -- Clay Buchholz insisted he didn't get frustrated and didn't get rattled. But the longer the Boston Red Sox starter talked, the more he admitted that OK, you know, he was frustrated all right. Maybe even a little upset. And all right, it's true: He did get so distracted at one point that he forgot to back up home plate on a play in the first inning.

All of which was a long way of saying, so much for the Opening Day gem Buchholz threw against the Philadelphia Phillies five days earlier, a start that sent Boston owner John Henry almost floating out of the ballpark and proclaiming that in Buchholz, the revamped Red Sox had already found the season's staff ace.

Very little of that Buchholz was evident Sunday.

He fell to 1-1 on the season after being rocked for seven runs in the first inning en route to Boston's 14-4 loss at Yankee Stadium. The Red Sox (4-2) missed a chance to ride a series sweep into Monday's home opener against the Washington Nationals.

After the game, Buchholz's state of mind -- the thing that has often been seen as getting in the way of his often terrific arsenal of pitches -- was again the topic of conversation. It has always been like this with him.

Even now, with Jon Lester and John Lackey gone and a 30-year-old Buchholz insisting he is ready to take over as the leader of this staff, psychoanalyzing Buchholz on a start-to-start basis remains a parlor game in Boston.

When Buchholz is rolling like he was against Philadelphia, the hope is he has finally got it. But when he has an outing such as Sunday night's, in which he gives up a career-worst 10 runs, two walks and nine hits -- two of them homers -- in a start that just keeps getting worse and worse, then the doubts about Buchholz's mental strength begin rising up again.

"I told him: 'Just flush it,'" Boston catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "His stuff wasn't that bad."

"I'm not going to let one start affect how I feel about the season we're going to have or how I feel -- I feel good," Buchholz insisted.

"He came out trying to use all of his pitches right from the get-go and at times maybe looked to pitch a little bit too fine," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "I know he warmed up sharp. He warmed up with all his pitches being executed.

"It was a different story once he got to the mound."

That last remark captures Buchholz's career in a nutshell, doesn't it?

Great one moment. Storm clouds rolling in the next.

After the game, Buchholz put up a bit of a fight when someone suggested he lost focus after six of the first eight Yankees he faced scored. But it didn't take very long for him to back off and admit that, yes, walking Jacoby Ellsbury to start the game and then seeing the Yanks' No. 2 hitter, Brett Gardner, perfectly execute a hit-and-run by slapping a single through the hole shortstop Xander Bogaerts left when he ran to cover second base was tough.

"I threw a good cutter in to Gardner. He found a way to manipulate the bat and get it through the hole, and you're fighting a battle from Jump Street," Buchholz said with a shrug and his voice trailing off.

Buchholz didn't deny that he shied away from snapping off a couple changeups after the Yankees hit the first few he threw. He didn't deny he failed to back up the bases a few times after Yankees hits -- none more obvious than when he only watched as the Yanks' slow-footed catcher, Brian McCann, barely beat a throw home to score New York's fourth run.

"I mean, I felt like they were going to score, regardless of a good throw or not," Buchholz said. "That's a mistake on my part."

Farrell -- who initially insisted Buchholz's problems weren't a "loss of focus" or "matter of not competing" -- agreed Buchholz's fundamental lapse of not backing up the bases on some plays was absolutely not OK.

"Once the pitch is thrown, you become a fielder," Farrell said. "There are responsibilities to the game situation, and that includes backing up bases. The game doesn't stop."

Chase Headley and Stephen Drew touched him for back-to-back home runs near the end of the first.

Realizing by then that the Yankees were sitting on his curve and changeup, Buchholz began throwing more fastballs. He actually began to regain a little effectiveness and command, as he retired eight of the nine batters he faced by the end of the third. The Red Sox even seemed like they might threaten to get back into the game when they scored three in the top of the fourth against Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka, helped by a throwing error by Drew that loaded the bases.

Bogaerts followed Drew's gaffe by snapping a two-run double down the third-base line, which cut the Yanks' lead to 7-3.

Tanaka, righting himself like Buchholz couldn't, ended the inning with consecutive strikeouts. But the Red Sox still felt they were on the verge of climbing back into the game.

"The momentum was clearly swinging back to us," Farrell insisted.

But Buchholz couldn't find a way to navigate the fourth without allowing more runs. Ellsbury, Gardner and Didi Gregorius, Derek Jeter's replacement at shortstop, all scored. The rout was officially back on. Buchholz was out of the game after 79 pitches.

"Yeah, I mean, the big inning is a shutdown inning after you go out and post runs," Buchholz said.

Then he went on to insist one lousy start "isn't going to create any doubts in my mind."

Buchholz being Buchholz ... you can believe that if you like.