First pitch: Buchholz is Red Sox' king of the hill

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First pitch: Buchholz is Red Sox' king of the hill

MIAMI -- It may not have been how the Red Sox planned it, but two-and-a-half months into the season, Clay Buchholz is the team's best starting pitcher.

Such a notion would have been laughable only a few weeks ago, when Buchholz owned an ERA north of 8.00. But over the last four turns through the rotation, Buchholz has made the convincing case.

Tuesday night, with little backing and even less margin for error, Buchholz performed brilliantly, limiting the Miami Marlins to a single run over seven innings.

And while Buchholz may have had to pitch out of trouble late in the game, the key may well have come in the first inning.

For the second night in a row, Miami shortstop Jose Reyes began the game with a triple to right field and stood on third base, representing an almost inevitable 1-0 lead for the Marlins.

But Buchholz conceded nothing. He proceeded to strike out the next three hitters -- Omar Infante, Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton -- each of one of them swinging at a third strike.

It was an impressive display of might by Buchholz, who would go on to rack up nine strikeouts, a 2012 high.

It also seemed a declaration of sorts. Knowing how little the Sox offense had provided of late -- it had averaged a paltry 3.1 runs per game over the previous eight games, seven of them losses -- Buchholz would not permit the opposition to take so much as a one-run, first-inning lead.

"I thought it was real big,'' said Bobby Valentine afterward. "It was a confidence builder for Buchholz and it probably took a little bit out of them. It's not like our offense came alive, but at least we knew we had a chance.''

"It was big,'' said Buchholz of his escape. "It was a pretty tough situation.''

Buchholz barely resembles the same pitcher of his first seven or eight starts this season. In April and through the first few weeks of May, Buchholz appeared tentative on the mound, perhaps not entirely convinced that the stress fracture in his lower back, which had robbed him of the final half of last season, had not fully healed.

"The first few weeks were pretty tough,'' he acknowledged Tuesday night. "I was down. I think anybody would be down. No one wants to give up runs and put their team in a losing situation. I had to find a way to get past that, and battle through it. I knew that I had done it before, so it wasn't going to not happen for me; it was just going to take a little bit of time coming off the injury.''

The turnaround has been fueled by an adjustment and a discovery. Buchholz changed the grip on his changeup a handful of starts back and it has gradually returned to being the weapon it was when he emerged in 2010 as one of the game's most promising starters.

But before the changeup returned, Buchholz stumbled upon another option with the help of teammate Josh Beckett, who suggested Buchholz experiment with a split-finger fastball.

"It's a pitch that I can, when my real changeup isn't there, puts another pitch in the hitter's mind,'' said Buchholz. "It's been a good pitch when I've thrown it. It's still new, I'm still working on it. But it's been a big pitch a few times for me.''

Mostly, Buchholz has been big for the Red Sox for the past month. While Jon Lester shows a continuing tendency to give back leads and Beckett can't seem to pitch well enough to win close games -- four wins in a dozen starts -- Buchholz, reagrdless of where he sits within the rotation, is the team's true No. 1.

A hungry ballplayer: Ex-Sox prospect Moncada once ate 85 Twinkies a week

A hungry ballplayer: Ex-Sox prospect Moncada once ate 85 Twinkies a week

This isn’t your average young and hungry player on the brink of the big leagues.

Yoan Moncada, the ex-Red Sox prospect who was one of the principal pieces in the trade for Chris Sale, ate 85 Twinkies in a week, his agent told ESPN The Magazine

David Hastings, Moncada's agent, clarified to CSNNE that this was a one-time thing when Moncada first arrived in the U.S. Moncada had never had Twinkies before, Hastings said, so he was like "a kid in a candy store."

He's still in great shape. Moncada had a huge spring training with the White Sox after a disappointing major-league debut with Boston in September. 

The 21-year-old third baseman has been optioned out of big-league camp, so he’s slated to start the year in Triple-A. But he hit .317 with a .391 on-base percentage and .683 slugging percentage and 3 home runs in 41 at-bats — some of the best numbers anywhere.

Moncada took a $31.5 million signing bonus from the Red Sox, money that the Sox turned into Sale. Moncada, meanwhile, didn’t exactly invest every cent.

Twinkies weren’t his only indulgence. 

More from the story: 

Moncada had money to spend on drones, video games, toys and clothes. He sometimes spent $1,500 or more during nights out, David says. After he purchased the second $200,000 car, Josefa [Hastings, David’s wife] tried to talk some sense into him.

Hastings reinforced to CSNNE that the message to Moncada was to invest in things that appreciate in value.

Drellich: Bogaerts should start season in second half of lineup

Drellich: Bogaerts should start season in second half of lineup

The Red Sox need to let their lineup sort itself out a bit, and really, need to see how one core player in particular fares: Xander Bogaerts. 
 
Until then, Red Sox manager John Farrell should try to alternate right- and left-handed hitters as much as possible against right-handed pitching
 
If Thursday’s Grapefruit League lineup indeed winds up as a preview for the regular season, Farrell’s on the right track.
 
1. Dustin Pedroia 2B
2. Andrew Benintendi LF
3. Mookie Betts RF
4. Hanley Ramirez DH
5. Mitch Moreland 1B
6. Xander Bogaerts SS
7. Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
8. Pablo Sandoval 3B
9. Blake Swihart C
 
Sandy Leon or Christian Vazquez should be at catcher normally, rather than Swihart. (If Leon shows he can in fact hit again, the Sox could also decide to put Jackie Bradley Jr. in the nine-hole.)
 
"Maybe a first look at our lineup," manager John Farrell told reporters in Florida. "I'm not saying this is Opening Day, but this is potential for one on Opening Day. And just to get everybody back in the rhythm. We've kind of fragmented because of the WBC and because of travel and bouncing around the state. To get our camp finally together, I think we're all looking forward to these last remaining games."
 
Betts is the best all-around producer the Red Sox have. He should be in the three-hole, despite chatter than Andrew Benintendi might be a fit.
 
But Bogaerts’ success will determine a lot of the flexibility available to Farrell. (Yes, everybody has to be healthy for the above statement to be true. And remember, lineups are important, but probably not as important as we’ve all been raised to believe). 

If Bogaerts plays like he did in the first half, when he batted .329 en route to an All-Star appearance, he could easily slide into the three-hole, and push Betts into the second or fourth spot. Or even leadoff.
 
If Bogaerts is the .253 hitter he was after the All-Star break, well, the second half of the lineup is where he belongs. 
 
Bogaerts is, ultimately, better than he showed as both he and the season wore down. But let him establish himself in a groove before you start loading up the top of the lineup with right-handed hitters, thereby giving opposing managers a clear path for righty relievers.
 
(The Red Sox could pinch hit Chris Young at any time, but you’re usually not taking out one of your best players just for a platoon advantage.)
 
And from another perspective, you almost need Bogaerts in the second half of the lineup. Because what else is there?
 
Say the Sox load all four right-handed hitters at the top.
 
1. Pedroia
2. Bogaerts
3. Betts
4. Ramirez 
 
That’s awesome. Then what? Benintendi and cross your fingers? Benintendi seems as sure a thing as any sophomore — well, technically a rookie — can be. But still.
 
This is where Moreland and Sandoval represent other X-factors. All spring, there’s been talk of how Fenway Park and a use-all-fields approach will benefit Moreland. That may be so — but to what extent? How much better can he reasonably be? The Sox are internally encouraged.
 
As it stands now, however, there’s no obvious choice to protect Ramirez, considering Moreland is coming off a season where he had a .293 on-base percentage against righties.
 
And with Sandoval, whether he’s anything more than a wet napkin vs. left-handed pitching is to be seen. There’s reason to believe he can handle right-handed pitchers at least adequately, so he'll get the start — but he could be the first guy pinch hit for nightly.