There Clay Buchholz was again Friday night, lifting the Red Sox to a 3-1 victory over the Orioles in the opener of a three-game series at Camden Yards.
Emerging as the No. 3 starter behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester at a time his team needed it most, Buchholz has surrendered two earned runs or less in seven of his past nine starts, turning in eight quality starts during that span.
"We talk about it all the time. Every five days, you send him out there and you feel like you know what you're going to get," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "That's important. Again, I know you have to have good stuff, but that's part of him growing into this. It's exciting. It's really exciting."
Buchholz limited the Orioles to five hits and a run over six innings, walking three and striking out one. This, despite the fact that he had far from his best stuff.
"Yeah, definitely, it was a game where I felt like I didn't have command of three of the four pitches that I was throwing," said Buchholz. "I still managed to throw a couple of them for a strike just to keep them honest. Other than that, it was definitely a mentally tiring game for me."
And that speaks volumes of how far Buchholz has come as a pitcher. Even on nights when he doesn't have that electric stuff, he can utilize his experience and his will to give the Red Sox what they need.
In other words, Buchholz has become something teams crave -- dependable.
"It's different," said Buchholz. "It's definitely a good feeling, and it's something that comes along with going through some struggles and finding your way back to where you want to be."
After spending the first half of the season in the Minor Leagues, Buchholz is 6-3 for the Red Sox, with a 3.49 ERA.
As for shedding that prospect label?
"Yeah, I hope so," Buchholz said. "It's been a long time coming. I've worked hard to get here. I'm not saying I didn't work hard last year, but I had some things to feed off of and give me a little more drive to get back here and try to be successful in this game. It's going well for me right now."
The same could be said for the Red Sox, who have reeled off wins in nine of their past 11 to open up a seven-game lead over the Rangers in the American League Wild Card standings. Boston's magic number for clinching a postseason berth is 10.
Casey Kotchman, getting a start so Mike Lowell could rest, delivered the first run of the game, an RBI single to left with one out in the second.
The Orioles answered in the second, as Luke Scott got a Buchholz changeup he liked and roped it over the wall in right for a solo shot.
"I think I threw three [changeups] in a row," said Buchholz. "Obviously, I'm not trying to throw it down the middle of the plate and thigh high. It was a pitch I thought was the right pitch to throw if I threw it to a quality location. The location got messed up in the mix, and he sat back on it and crushed it."
But the Red Sox would move back on top in the fourth, with Jason Bay unloading for home run No. 34, a solo blast. Bay is one homer from a career high. The left fielder had to leave the game in the bottom in the fifth inning with flu-like symptoms. Josh Reddick replaced him. Francona said that Bay will return to the lineup on Saturday.
"My 3-year-old daughter has been throwing up for five days straight," said Bay. "It was only a matter of time before somebody in our household had something. It's just a typical 'don't feel well.'"
Reddick immediately contributed in Bay's spot in the batting order, leading off a sixth-inning rally with a single to right. With two outs, Alex Gonzalez blooped in a single to right. Jacoby Ellsbury then came through with an RBI single to left, giving the Sox a 3-1 lead.
Buchholz and the bullpen took it home from there.
"He's been great," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia of Buchholz. "That's No. 1 stuff. He's got great stuff. He's getting more confidence each and every time he goes out."
Victor Martinez, who has caught every Buchholz start during the hot streak, has enjoyed watching the evolution.
"Every outing, he's getting better and better," said Martinez. "I think the most important thing is that he's getting comfortable on the mound. He's just been throwing good pitches and being able to mix all his pitches and getting ahead in the count. That's a big thing for a pitcher."
And Buchholz will only get bigger for the Red Sox as the stakes rise down the stretch.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less