BOSTON -- There were times over the previous two years when Boston Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz admits he had doubts about being able to fulfill the promise that had made him such a ballyhooed prospect.
But those doubts have been melting away this year.
Buchholz, who was fighting for a spot in the Red Sox rotation during spring training, has enjoyed such success this season that he has thrust himself squarely into the discussion for the American League Cy Young Award.
And while Buchholz says it's way too early to consider himself an elite pitcher in the major leagues, his performance Sunday was the latest in a string of excellent outings.
Buchholz endured a 1-hour, 44-minute rain delay before the first pitch and a 59-minute rain delay in the top of the third before authoring six shutout innings in a 5-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday at soggy Fenway Park.
The victory boosted Buchholz's record to 15-5 and lowered his A.L.-leading ERA to 2.26. Only the Yankees' CC Sabathia, who won his 17th game on Sunday, has more wins in the American League. Buchholz extended his scoreless streak to 20 innings and has not allowed an earned run in his last 23⅓ innings.
Clearly, he is on a roll. But don't expect Buchholz to start tooting his own horn, a little humility no doubt earned from spending parts of the previous two seasons in the minors, even if he does have a chance to make it to 20 wins.
Buchholz said "it might take a couple of years" before he considers himself an elite pitcher. "I don't even have a full season in the big leagues. I just have to go out there and try to get better every fifth day," said Buchholz, 26, the 42nd pick in the 2005 draft.
"The numbers are good, but I've had a lot of good luck over the course of the year," he said. "There have been balls hit right at people, the defense has been there for me, and the guys in the dugout have been swinging the bats well when I go out there. It's satisfying, but things could be the complete opposite."
Buchholz may not be a completely different pitcher than he was when he came up in 2007 and threw a no-hitter against the Orioles in his second big-league start, but his struggles in Boston in 2008 (2-9, 6.75) prompted the organization to retool his mechanics a bit last year.
And the results have been evident for Buchholz, who went 7-4 with a 4.21 ERA last season for the Red Sox after being recalled for good from Pawtucket on July 21.
His command and poise now match his dazzling repertoire, a couple of reasons he made the All-Star team this summer.
On Sunday, Buchholz whiffed seven in his six innings. In the second inning, he surprised John McDonald with a changeup in getting a feeble strike-three swing, and then Travis Snider waved weakly at another beautiful changeup for a strikeout. Buchholz also fanned Fred Lewis in the inning, zipping a 95-mile-an-hour heater upstairs past the Jays' leadoff hitter.
Not that Buchholz's outing was spotless. He walked three, including the leadoff batter in each of the first three innings. Indeed, in five of Buchholz's six innings the leadoff batter reached base.
"That team swings the bat," Buchholz said of the Jays, who lead the AL in homers.
So when he got behind, he wasn't about to give in, which led to the walks. But Buchholz, who gave up five hits, all singles, was able to calmly work out of danger.
The rain delay came with Buchholz holding a 1-and-1 count on Adam Lind with two outs and a runner at first.
Manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell checked with Buchholz to make sure he was all right to return after the 59-minute delay.
"He was fine," said Francona. "He was pitching out of the stretch a lot, but he did a good job. He threw better when he came back out."
"They asked me if my body was tight," said Buchholz. "I went out and threw and I still felt loose. I got a little fatigued in the sixth inning. My legs were a little dead. They [the delays] take a lot out of you. But I thought I made some good pitches in the sixth. When you're like that, it makes you think a little more. I tried to pitch to the corners and tried not to let them get the fat part of the bat on the ball."
Buchholz had to be good because Toronto starter Shaun Marcum retired the first 12 batters he faced. But three quick hits in the fifth -- a triple by David Ortiz, a double by Adrian Beltre and a two-run homer by Bill Hall -- put Buchholz and the Sox on top.
Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront preserved Buchholz's 15th win, putting the righty in the company of Sabathia, Tampa Bay's David Price, Texas' Cliff Lee and Seattle's Felix Hernandez as the Cy Young front-runners.
"He's gaining confidence with every start," said Hall. "He knows what he has to do. He expects to be dominant."
"He has gained experience, gotten a little older, the normal course of growing up," said Francona. "The numbers the season's not over. But he's becoming one of the pitchers you can count on, which is very exciting for us."
Buchholz, meanwhile, doesn't want to get ahead of himself.
"It's been great so far," said Buchholz, "but I have to keep it rolling."