- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- It came up in conversation this spring, Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. With a no-hitter on the line, Jason Varitek called for a slider. Curt Schilling shook him off and threw a fastball instead, and Oakland's Shannon Stewart lined the pitch into right field for a single, one out away from what would have been Big Schill's only no-hitter, coming at age 40.
"Tek said, 'Yep, he shook me off,'" said Saltalamacchia, the Boston Red Sox catcher.
It came up in conversation again Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park, when Clay Buchholz took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and threw a first-pitch curveball to the first Tampa Bay Rays batter, Kelly Johnson, for a called strike.
Saltalamacchia put down a sign for a fastball. Buchholz shook him off. The catcher put down more signs until Buchholz got the one he wanted, another curve.
"I was able to throw a first-pitch curveball for strikes a lot today," Buchholz said. "The second one was supposed to be a purpose pitch. I wanted it right on top of the plate, see if we got a swing."
The curveball did not drop as much as Buchholz had hoped. Johnson, who had never gotten a hit off Buchholz (0-for-9, including called third strikes on each of his first two at-bats Sunday) swung, the bat splintering, the ball finding a safe landing place in right field for a single.
There would be no no-no, matching the one that Buchholz threw in just his second major league start in 2007 against the Baltimore Orioles. There would be one more hit, after Johnson was erased on a double play, a line-drive double off the wall for a double by Desmond Jennings.
And there certainly was no second-guessing by anyone after a 5-0 Red Sox win over the Rays that gives them a chance to sweep Tampa Bay in a series shortened to rain by three games. It was one of the most dominant outings of Buchholz's career, one in which he struck out a career-high 11 batters.
The 23-year-old who no-hit the Orioles on Sept. 1, 2007? That guy is gone, replaced by someone with a far greater understanding of his craft than the kid who that night wouldn't shake off "The Captain" (Varitek), he said Sunday, because "I was scared of him."
"I see him growing up, yeah," said Saltalamacchia, who was in sync with Buchholz all afternoon. "I see a guy on the mound who really knows his stuff, really has confidence, obviously. He's always been good, but today he was just ridiculous. I could have called any pitch at any time and he was going to hit his spots. It's fun to catch that."
Smiling broadly, Saltalamacchia said he was tempted to "blow [Buchholz] up" for shaking him off. Then he explained the thinking behind the Johnson at-bat.
"In my mind, the curveball was a good pitch for the first pitch, but I didn't want to go back to it," the catcher said.
"I put down fastball and then cutter, then he shook to the curveball. But if I don't like it, I'm going to call time out, be on the same page. Obviously, he was so sharp on his curveball, I couldn't say no to it. That's a good pitch for him."
Sox manager John Farrell said Buchholz had no reason to question his pitch selection.
"I don't think Clay second-guessed that pitch," he said. "It was a quality pitch. I don't think there were many pitches that weren't quality."
This was one of those rare afternoons that happen maybe five times during a season, Buchholz said, when everything was working for him.
"I was able to throw my fastball to both sides of the plate, my cutter to both sides of the plate, my curveball to both sides of the plate," he said. "It's fun to go out and pitch when all your pitches are working."
He didn't even mention his changeup, which Farrell called "outstanding."
The numbers bear it out. Buchholz threw 47 four-seam fastballs, which averaged more than 92 mph and touched close to 94. He threw 19 changeups, 20 curves, 21 cutters and a couple of two-seamers.
The closest the Rays came to a hit before Johnson's broken-bat single was a smash up the middle by Jennings after a leadoff walk to Sam Fuld. Shortstop Stephen Drew knocked it down with a dive, and the ball caromed to second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who fired to first in time to catch Jennings.
"The performance speaks for itself," Farrell said. "The guy had four pitches working for strikes, and I think he struck out guys on four different pitches."
Indeed, Buchholz had five strikeouts with fastballs, three with cutters, two with curves and one with a changeup, according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information.
Buchholz, who has pitched 17 consecutive scoreless innings, has won each of his first three starts, posting an 0.41 ERA. He yielded to Andrew Miller to start the ninth after giving up two hits and walking four, throwing 109 pitches, 69 for strikes.
Farrell said he was getting a bit anxious as Buchholz's pitch count climbed. Had Buchholz gotten into the mid-120-pitch range with the no-hitter intact, Farrell's discomfort would have increased. Enough to take him out?
"I don't think we'll ever know, will we?" he said.
Buchholz was bidding to become the first Red Sox pitcher since the deadball era (pre-1920) to throw multiple no-hitters. Dutch Leonard (1916, 1918) and Cy Young (1904, 1908) are the only pitchers to throw two no-hitters in a Sox uniform.
Mike Napoli, whose double keyed the team's four-run third inning, sat next to Buchholz in the later innings. "I wasn't saying much," Napoli said. But he didn't want to move either, succumbing to one of those age-old superstitions that potential no-hitters invite.
"I was sitting in the same spot, I didn't want to move," Saltalamacchia said. "I didn't want to do anything. My shirt stayed untucked for seven innings."
Given the beginning of Buchholz's season, maybe it should stay untucked for his next start too.
"He knows himself more as a pitcher," Farrell said. "Where that shows up is when he's got runners on base or men in scoring position. You don't see that emotional spike as evident as maybe in the first year or so. He can execute quality pitches in tight spots. That's what stands out now as opposed to even three years ago."
Saltalamacchia said he saw the evolution last season, when Buchholz began to trust his stuff more.
"I'll say this," Saltalamacchia said. "He's got [guts]. He'll throw any pitch at any time. Even though he shakes, he's got a feel for what he wants and makes that pitch."