Buchholz, Sox dealt crushing blow
Young right-hander's brilliance wasted in loss to Rays
ST. PETERSBURG -- For 7 2/3 innings, Clay Buchholz made Tropicana Field look like home. The 23-year-old had masterfully held the Rays to two hits in his first career appearance against the club before a 1-1 pitch to Akinori Iwamura did what Carlos Pena's long ball in the fourth inning could not: stay fair.
Buchholz promptly struck out Carl Crawford to end the inning, but the damage had been done. Rays closer Troy Percival notched the final three outs, and the Sox let a lead slip through their fingers for the second straight night, dropping their fourth straight game -- their longest skid this season -- with a 2-1 loss.
"Clay was great," manager Terry Francona said. "He just gave up a home run when we didn't need him to. Clay stayed in his delivery the entire game. I thought he actually got stronger as the game went on."
Buchholz had a no-hitter until B.J. Upton hit a leadoff double in the bottom of the fourth inning. The right-hander cruised through seven shutout innings, fanning eight Rays before his fateful pitch to Iwamura.
"He hit a good pitch," Buchholz said. "He was sitting all over it, so hats off to him. I threw a pitcher's pitch, and he hit it."
Iwamura, like most of the Rays, had been left in fits all night dealing with Buchholz's pitching. But Tampa Bay's second baseman had a hunch about what the hurler would throw next in what had become a chess match.
"Curveball," Iwamura said. "I took a pretty good swing against his changeup to center field [previously], and probably [Sox catcher Jason] Varitek knew I had good timing on the changeup. And my first three at-bats, I had bad timing on the curveball, so I thought he would throw me a curve."
And with that lucky guess, the Sox saw their own luck sail over the fence at Tropicana Field in front of the sellout crowd of 36,048.
"Overall, I felt great tonight," Buchholz said. "Just a little misfortune, I guess."
The misfortunes seem to be piling up, as slugger David Ortiz was scratched from the lineup with a bruised right knee. Francona said that the slugger was still sore and not expected to start on Sunday. Before the game, first baseman Sean Casey was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a right hip strain, an injury he sustained in Friday's game.
"[We] need to get this team back on track -- get some Ws," Kevin Youkilis said. "You know, we're pretty unlucky right now. We're hitting the ball pretty well, [but] we're not catching too many breaks. And you have times in the game like this, and it works in crazy ways. For us, right now, it's not going our way."
It appeared early on that the Sox might catch a break. With a depleted relief corps and after Friday night's harrowing extra-innings loss, Buchholz struggled a bit in the first inning, issuing back-to-back walks before taking command. After the second walk, the right-hander retired 20 of the next 21 batters he faced, allowing only Upton's double down the third-base line.
"You could see as the game progressed he was coming off the mound with something," Francona said. "Jumping off the mound in his delivery. He was aggressive; his changeup was fun to watch. It's the kind of pitching that maybe [isn't going to result in] a two- or three-hitter every time, but that's the kind of pitcher you need. His stuff was electric."
Rays starter Edwin Jackson also held his own, allowing five hits over seven innings, but he was haunted for most of the game by what looked to be the deciding factor: Coco Crisp's legs.
The speedy center fielder singled to start the fifth inning, and took second and third when Jackson's wild pitch got behind catcher Shawn Riggans. Crisp scored on a two-out single by Jacoby Ellsbury, who was the only member of the Sox to muster up multiple hits, going 2-for-4. The rest of the bats were left looking bewildered by Jackson, whose own solid performance was overshadowed by Buchholz.
"Basically, he was mixing up his pitches. He was a little erratic, so you kind of didn't know where the ball was going," Youkilis said. "I think that sometimes helps out a pitcher. And he just settled down and didn't get out of control when he walked a guy or got a hit. He settled down and didn't let it steamroll from there."
When the dust finally settled, there were two teams in two starkly different positions.
The Rays have now won five straight, whereas the Sox have dropped four in a row, and the reigning World Series champions are no longer alone at the top of the American League East entering Sunday's series finale. Tampa Bay sits one game behind Baltimore and Boston.
"Hopefully, we can get back on track tomorrow, get a win, go back home and enjoy that off-day that we really need." Youkilis said. "They played well, they beat us both nights, but I think they were an easy two games we should [have won]. ... They got the big hits when they needed [them]."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.