By Sean McAdam
BALTIMORE-- When Clay Buchholz took a big step forward in 2010 and finished with a 2.33 ERA, the second best among among qualifying starters in the American League, it seemed as though it was a culmination of sorts.
For years, Buchholz had exhbited signs that he was capable of becoming a front-line starter, but, frustratingly, wasn't able to put it together on a consistent basis.
His breakout season saw him finally make good on his potential.
But even as Buchholz was injecting himself into the Cy Young Award debate, there were sceptics. Buchholz, some warned, had an extraordinary BABIP (batting average for balls in play) of .261, some 34 points below the American League average of .295.
What that means was that Buchholz, while very good, was also very lucky at times. In another year, with at-bats resulting in the very same results, it's highly unlikely that Buchholz would record as many outs as he did on balls put in play.
Now, five starts in to 2011, the suspicion is growing. Or maybe it's just karma.
Buchholz allowed a career-high 12 hits Tuesday night as the Red Sox five-game winning streak was snapped in 4-1 loss to Baltimore. Though Buchholz had his first quality start Tuesday -- the last of the five Red Sox starters to record one -- he did not have a single 1-2-3 inning in the seven that he started. Buchholz owns the distinction of being the only Boston staritng pitcher in the last 11 games to allow more than two runs.
And he's done it twice.
Is this a preview of things to come? Is Buchholz about to pay for his good fortune of 2010 with a return to normalcy, and with it, a dropoff of in results in 2011?
(The Red Sox, apparently, are undeterred. Though no front office is more intrigued by peripheral statistics or open to sabermetrics, they felt confident enough to lavish Buchholz with a 30 million contract extension earlier this month).
The caprcious nature of results was evident when Buchholz, unprompted, suggested that his stuff Tuesday night (producing four runs on 12 hits over 6 23 innings) was better than his stuff last Wednesday afternoon in Oakland when he allowed just one run on six hits over 5 13 innings.
"And I got a win out of the start in Oakland," noted Buchholz.
Buchholz's start Tuesday -- or the four which preceded it -- shouldn't necessarily be cause for alarm. Though he did have a parade of baserunners (two per inning), three of the four Orioles runs came on sacrifice flies and a fourth on a well-placed roller to first which kicked off the bag before Adrian Gonzalez could intercept it.
Had Buchholz better executed his two-seam fastball on a few at-bats, he perhaps could have gotten groundouts instead of run-scoring flyouts. The pitcher himself conceded -- and Francona agreed -- that he needed to do a better job throwing inside to hitters and not them extend their hands on pitches out over the plate.
If there was one refreshing aspect of Buchholz's start, it was improved command. Buchholz had averaged four walks per start in his first four outings and Tuesday night, he had just two.
"When Clay gets on a roll," said Terry Francona, "he really goes with that. And he hasn't got there yet. I see his battling, I see his stuff being good."
Maybe even as good as last year. But not, perhaps unsurprisingly, yielding the kind of results he got a season ago.