- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- When Boston Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz arrived at Fenway Park on Tuesday afternoon for his regularly scheduled bullpen session between starts, he learned fellow starter Daniel Bard had been assigned to the minors in order to figure out his struggles.
Despite Bard's inconsistencies this season as a first-time starter in the majors, Buchholz said he was surprised by the organization's decision to send Bard to Triple-A Pawtucket.
Actually, Buchholz, who has been in a similar situation several times during his big league career, used it as a reminder that anything can happen in this game. He hopes to never experience that demotion again.
After some early-season struggles and a highly inflated ERA that hovered around 9.00, Buchholz finally has returned to form. On Thursday, he posted his third consecutive strong outing, tossing a complete-game shutout to help the Red Sox to a 7-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park.
The right-hander allowed only four hits with one walk and six strikeouts, while throwing 125 pitches, which is the second-highest one-game total of his career.
Buchholz has struck out 19 batters in his past three starts with an ERA of 1.50 during that span.
"It was spectacular," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said. "Clay came out and had all of his pitches right from the get-go. I thought his changeup, and his arm speed on his changeup, was spectacular. He even threw some splits tonight, it seemed, that were really good pitches. His curveball was very active. When you have control of the fastball and throwing it at 93, 94 [mph], and the changeup, split and curveball [are working], you've got a good chance of winning. He shut them out."
Unlike earlier in the year when he was struggling, Buchholz is getting ahead of hitters and forcing them to swing early in the count because they don't want to fall behind. That's been especially true his past three starts.
"My last three starts have been good," he said. "There's still stuff I can do better so that's what we're looking into and that's how we're going to go about it in the next four or five days."
The way he's pitching now resembles what he was able to do during the 2010 season, when he posted a 17-7 record with a 2.33 ERA.
Speaking of ERA, he has a 3.10 mark in his past six starts, lowering it from a 9.09 to a 5.77 overall. He said he's not focusing on the numbers because he's concentrating more on each at-bat during each outing.
"Yeah, I feel good," he said. "Everything feels strong."
There has been an obvious difference with Buchholz. He explained that he's pitching with more confidence and he's been able to throw different pitches in different counts, something he struggled with earlier in the year. He specifically credits his changeup and his ability to throw it both early and late in the count to opposing hitters.
"When you have a good changeup, it's the best pitch in baseball," Valentine said. "It gets people off of your fastball. It allows you to throw something when you're behind in the count other than the fastball, which is the pitch they're trying to time. If you can break a hitter's timing, you have a good chance of getting him out. He hardly gave in tonight. He pitched very well."
Buchholz has tweaked a few things in order to effectively throw his changeup.
"The only adjustment was the grip. My grip was a little off," Buchholz said. "I've been able to free that up a little bit. I'll still spike some and let some go up and in to righties, but not near as much as I was doing. It's been a pitch we've tried to work on for a long time. I noticed it wasn't the same grip I had in past years, and now it's coming back."
His previous complete-game shutout came June 4, 2010, at Baltimore, when the Red Sox beat the Orioles 11-0. He allowed only five hits with one walk and two strikeouts in that game. In fact, he has three career nine-inning complete games, all against the Orioles, including his no-hitter on Sept. 1, 2007.
Buchholz last faced the Orioles on May 21 in Baltimore and went only 5 1/3 innings after he allowed five runs on six hits, including four walks, one strikeout and one home run.
He dominated the American League East leaders Thursday.
Buchholz said after the win that he doesn't feel any different against the Orioles than any other team.
"I don't know," he said. "They kind of gave it to me the last two times I faced them. Obviously you face these guys a lot -- all of our starters do -- and it's just a matter of going out and who's going to win that day. It's like a chess match. They have a really good lineup or they wouldn't be where they are at right now."
It's also clear Buchholz is feeling a lot more comfortable with men on base.
"Well, there's less men on base," Valentine pointed out. "He came in and checked after the first inning, wanting to know his time to the plate. When we told him it was plenty quick enough, I think he just put that in his back pocket and said, 'OK, I have my leg kick and I know what I have to do to deliver the ball,' and it seemed like he didn't worry about it after that."
At one point this season, Buchholz's time to the plate was ineffectively slow. He knew it and has improved on his pace, which has helped his confidence and momentum.
"I've played a position before and I know how it is to play behind someone who's slow, and it's not fun," Buchholz said. "That's why I sort of brought it up and I've been working on it the last couple of weeks."
Boston's starting rotation needs Buchholz to be consistent. From a personal standpoint, Buchholz needs confidence. He's pitching with it right now, and the Red Sox hope that continues.
"When you're talented and your stuff is working for you, it's easy to be confident," Valentine said. "It's tough to hit that stuff. Clay is one of the really good athletes we have on this team, and when he's competing against the hitter, and not against himself and trying to find his stuff and his command, he looks pretty good."
Clay Buchholz was strong, confident and in command Thursday night.