Clay Buchholz Controls the Universe
A liquid conforms to the shape of its container; it succumbs to outside pressures. But Boston Red Sox righthander Clay Buchholz remained solid Tuesday night against Toronto; he did not- ahem- melt when the heat was on.
Having already thrown 99 pitches, the fragile looking yet hard throwing Buchholz took a 2-1 lead into the 8th inning. He promptly fell behind Adam Lind three balls and one strike. Phase change appeared imminent; in a leadoff walk, the transition from a hard fought victory to a soft surrender was in the offing. But Buchholz battled. He fired a fastball down and away for strike two. Two more fastballs- at 93 and 94 miles per hour- found the strikezone but were fouled off. The count remained full. Lind fouled off a tough slider, and Buchholz came back with a fastball, this time inducing a routine flyout to left.
This was already progress. Last July, I asked if Clay Buchholz pitches for Boston when Clay Buchholz pitches for Boston. I suggested that Buchholz had yet to form a self, a locus of control from which his pitches flowed. I wrote
“If he is to become a Major League pitcher, in the metaphysical sense, Clay will have to act, and not suffer whatever will happen next. Papelbon inauthentically blamed the universe following last night’s blown save- “What am I going to do? Things like that happen”, he shrugged. Clay cannot afford to be shaped by external pressures, as he is still wet and malleable; his baseball self is not yet formed. Pitching is pure agency- all assertion, no reaction. An inner self is required.”
Coming back to retire Lind after falling behind 3-1 was an act of agency. He refused to back down when Lind fouled off pitcher’s pitches. And they were pitcher’s pitches; Buchholz possessed them, and decorated the interior of the strike zone as he wished.
But Buchholz further solidified his progress when he maintained his integrity against a rapidly collapsing universe. On the very next pitch, Toronto centerfielder Vernon Wells hit a high chopper to Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre’s left. Beltre juggled the ball, and threw wide of first, up the rightfield line. Wells raced passed second, and took a wide turn towards third, before retreating. It was ruled an infield hit (and a throwing error), but Beltre should have made the play. Instead of two outs and nobody on, the tying run was now on second, nearly on third, with just one out. The old Buchholz would have felt the pressure. As the walls closed in, he would have wondered, despairingly, “What’s going to happen next?”. His apparently well-made “stuff”, prized by scouts, would have come apart at the seams, revealing itself a cheap knockoff of a genuine pitcher.
Instead, Buchholz created a magnificent, masterly thing of beauty. After just missing on a fastball away, Buchholz dusted the outside corner with a flitting changeup that Lyle Overbay could only flail at. After Overbay foolishly failed to dig out a burrowing Buchholz slider for strike two, Overbay just bought a ticket and watched strike three, a perfectly placed fastball fired over the inside corner. Buchholz had showed up.
Now with two outs, and in an RBI situation, a first pitch fastball would be irresistible to former Sox shortstop Alex Gonzalez. So Buchholz threw what appeared to be a belt high middle-in fastball, an easy tramp of a pitch, whetting Gonzalez’ appetite, seducing his lust for glory. But when the coquettish pitch teased and faded like the archetypal changeup, Gonzalez was scorned. His pride wounded, Gonzalez only persisted, chasing after two more changeups, each less hittable than the last; as his unrequited love grew more distant, his desire only intensified, and Gonzalez could only manage a meager pop to shallow center. To retire the side.
Buchholz got out of the jam by turning the hitters to jelly. He did not become viscous, he did not take on the shape of the container. He did not let the Beltre error define him. He stood his ground, solidly and stolidly. He held the lead. He exited after 8 innings, allowing one run on 7 hits, 2 walks, 4 strikeouts. And the W.
Statistics may be better predictors than grit. After striking out 10 and walking one in his last outing versus Texas, Tuesday’s numbers may only stand out for their relative efficiency (117 pitches over 8 innings.) But this was a quality start, as opposed to quantity. It was a game where Buchholz defined himself, as a self. Rather than fading into the background, Buchholz fought to defend his borders. And this may portend greater things than the small sample size of a single pitching line.
But there is an irony here. The Sox scored the second- and winning- run in the top of the 8th when Mike Lowell walked with the bases loaded. Lowell was pinch hitting for Big Papi, David Ortiz. And if any single event exemplified the change from one phase of life to another, it is the man who was once hailed by the team owners as the “greatest clutch hitter in the history of the Boston Red Sox” being pinch hit for with the bases loaded and the game tied in the 8th inning. That at-bat may steal the headlines. But if it turns out that Clay Buchholz has become a true pitcher- an autonomous agent, able to possess the powers potentially at his disposal, and to stand up when his teammates fall down- then the Sox have something. Not a prospect, nor a suspect, but a spectacular pitcher whose raw stuff has become something solid and well-crafted.
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