BOSTON -- Last season, Red Sox pitchers talked about pitching with conviction. But Clay Buchholz was one of the only Red Sox starters who actually showed consistent signs of that throughout 2012.
Still, on the Opening Day depth chart, "Buchholz" read No. 2 on the depth chart, behind Jon Lester.
And while Lester's 2013 season is off to a terrific start, it's Buchholz who is making a pretty solid case to be the go-to ace of Boston's staff.
Buchholz didn't allow a hit Sunday until Kelly Johnson punched a leadoff, broken-bat single to right field in the eighth inning. He wound up allowing two hits over eight shutout innings as the Sox cruised past the Rays, 5-0.
Johnson's hit came on an 0-and-1 curveball. Even so, Buchholz wouldn't pitch Johnson any differently if he had another chance.
"I was able to throw first-pitch curveballs for strikes a lot today," he said. "And the second one that I threw him, basically it was supposed to be a purpose pitch to see if we could get a swing. He was able to put a bat on it, so, it was just one of those things.
"When I released it, it felt like it was going to be a good pitch."
Buchholz then got Sam Fuld to ground into a double play, but allowed a Desmond Jennings two-out double off the top of the Green Monster on the 105th pitch he threw. That would be the final hit he'd allow, as he got out of that eighth inning unscathed, thanks to a Ben Zobrist pop fly.
"I don't think Clay second-guesses himself one bit," said Red Sox manager John Farrell when asked about the no-hitter being broken. "It was a quality pitch. I don't think he made too many pitches that weren't quality today. And if he did, they didn't hurt him."
Buchholz finished the game allowing only those two hits in the eighth, while striking out 11 and walking four. He's now 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA & 23 strikeouts in 3 starts and 22 innings pitched. All those wins have come against A.L. East rivals: the Yankees, Orioles and Rays.
On Sunday, Buchholz was in "complete control," according to Farrell.
"I think the first three starts, he's had very similar stuff," said the Red Sox manager. "Particularly fastball location. When he's down in the strike zone, he forces the hitters to look down, and then he can expand the zone with his other pitches."
And that "pitching with conviction" mentality that everybody talked about last season? Buchholz continued to do that in his third straight start on Sunday.
"The one thing that Clay had today was clear conviction," said Farrell. "I thought he and [catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia] did an excellent job working together. They had a feel for their aggressiveness, when to use the changeup, when to use the cutter in certain situations. But he had four pitches that he could go to at any time today, seemingly. But I think the way that they worked and felt that aggressiveness, they were an outstanding combination today."
Saltalamacchia said he knew before the game that Buchholz was ready to bring it once again on Sunday.
"From the get-go, in the bullpen, he looked good," said Saltalamacchia. "The ball was coming out great. Then we got in the game, he couldn’t miss my glove. Put it down and away, he hit it. We had a good zone today where they umpire liked the ball down. That’s where Clay likes to live. So he did a great job just mixing pitches. He made so many good pitches it’s hard to hit someone who throws like that to both sides of the plate."
And the Rays nearly were part of Buchholz' second-career no-no.
Buchholz' first no-hitter came in September of 2007, in just his second Major League start. It came against the Baltimore Orioles. He admitted that the feeling in this game -- before he allowed a hit in the eighth -- was different than that in 2007.
"I had [Jason Varitek] behind the plate calling the pitches (in '07), and I didn't want to shake him off because I was scared of him," said a smiling Buchholz after Sunday's win.
This time around, Buchholz was the one in complete command. He just couldn't complete this no-hitter.
"I always tell people that -- when they ask me about the no-hitter and everything -- I tell them I've been trying to do it again since that day, and it hasn't happened," said Buchholz. "So that shows you how far luck goes with going out there and throwing a game like that."
No-hitter or not, Buchholz was downright filthy against the Rays. He had all four pitches working for strikes. He allowed no runs. And he set the tone for a 5-0 Red Sox win. And that's all that truly matters to an organization that desperately needed to re-capture the existence of dominant starting pitching.
To say he's grown over the years is an understatement.
"He knows himself more as a pitcher," said Farrell. "I think where that shows up are in those spots where he's got men on base, runners in scoring position. You don't see that emotional spike, as maybe you did in his first year or so. That's where he's been able to execute quality pitches in those tight spots. And that's the one thing that stands out now versus even three years ago."
Right now, Buchholz is pitching with conviction. He's pitching like an ace. And that's one of the reasons why these aren't your 2012 Boston Red Sox.