Where do I even begin this post?
I've missed writing about last night's game and plenty else happened earlier today and tonight, but right now, I can't think back much further than the sixth inning.
Clay Buchholz was introduced to a hero's welcome at Camden Yards to begin the sixth. During sideline commentary a little later, Tina Cervasio would actually refer to him as "The Future of the Red Sox." The worship has begun in earnest. And I'll admit that means at least some part of me is a little bit afraid for him.
The thing that gets me about Clay Buchholz is how openly awestruck he's been about his big-league experience, whether it's smiling nervously and saying, "Wow," as the Fenway crowd rained down a roar after his no-hitter or "aw, shucks"-ing his way through a press conference.
I also love it when he chews on his glove. That's his "tell", if you will, like D-Lowe's hat removal / forehead swipe or Beckett's squint and mile-a-minute chewing, his unconscious expression of both distress and an awesome total immersal in the task at hand.
Tonight that was happening by the second batter of the sixth. Buchholz walked the first batter, Brian Roberts, and then almost immediately began to show signs of losing it, running the count to 2-0 on Tike Redman and prompting a mound visit from John Farrell, Kevin Cash, and before it was over, Julio Lugo.
After the visit, Brian Roberts wasted no time in feinting and shucking and jiving at first base, in a successful attempt to distract Buchholz. Who is a wee, embryonic little pitcher, still, after all. Then Tike rendered the issue moot with a grounder through the gap into right, putting two men on and prompting teeth to meet glove-leather.
There was a kind of primitive thing happening out there, as Roberts continued relentlessly badgering Buchholz from second while Markakis stood menacingly at the plate, the gateway to the heart of the O's order. They were literally big-leaguing him.
My heart was in my throat, watching this. Suddenly I was certain I was about to see Buchholz give up a three-run homer. Maybe it's necessary, I thought, like some sort of initiation rite. He can't be perfect forever, so why not break him in now? That's at least one possible explanation for why Tito didn't have anyone up behind Buchholz even as he walked Markakis to load the bases.
Or maybe that was an "I believe in you, kid," move. Maybe a little of both. Either he sinks or he swims. This is annoying to fans as it is not purely about winning the game. At least, not this particular game, tonight. Instead, seemingly with a much bigger picture in mind, Tito put it all on the line with Buchholz on the mound.
Impossible to overstate the terror in that bases-loaded, no-out situation. Buchholz himself was anything but poker-faced. He was sighing so much he was nearly panting on the mound between pitches. By the time Miguel Tejada was taking a mighty hack at Buchholz's fastball, demonstrating his murderous swing for the young Texan, I was completely absorbed myself, locked with Clay, whose every move I scrutinized, in the blood-curdling panic of this inning.
Tejada tapped his next pitch weakly down the third-base line, and then Lowell set the machine of the infield in motion around the Orioles baserunners, whisking two of them away and preventing any runs from scoring.
Forget about Buchholz by then, *I* needed a paper bag to breathe into.
Kevin Millar, next at the plate with runners at second and third and those two miraculous outs on the board, fouled off some fastballs, as he is wont to do, digging himself a 1-2 hole before Buchholz loaded the count. Buchholz shook off Kevin Cash twice, finally stepping off the rubber. Cash lifted his mask and squinted out at his pitcher for a moment, but went reluctantly back into his crouch again.
The final curveball broke from Millar's belt to his feet. His bat sliced the air well above where it landed for the inning-ending strike three. Meanwhile, I was curled on my couch in the fetal position, completely disbelieving what my eyes were telling me.
Nor did I believe it when Buchholz returned for the seventh.
And the eighth.
After that first hard-won frame, Buchholz threw up two more zeros before handing the save situation over to Papelbon. I still can hardly believe this as I type it. If you'd paused my TiVo right at the moment of that final pitch to Tejada and told me that Buchholz was going to pitch three innings and get the win, I would not have been able to comprehend it. (And once again, Wake, with his first no-decision this year, is the one who bowed out early to make way for the kid. It's a coincidence, sure, but it's an eerie coincidence.)
Papelbon was first gotten up in the ninth with the game still tied, another one of those confidence gestures, presumably. At least in part. But Coco and Tek delivered, the former with a beat-out throw at first and a steal to get in scoring position, the latter with a double to left-center to bat him in. This after Coco had already saved Buchholz's bacon once with a leaping grab in center field the previous inning. (Not long afterwards, however, JD Drew came upon the rally in progress and promptly killed it with a GIDP.)
In the dugout as Papelbon took the mound, Dustin Pedroia approached Clay Buchholz. He looked him in the eye. Clay nodded as he said something. Pedroia took the rookie's hand and shook it, then thumped him on the shoulder with his other hand and walked away.
Jonathan set to work quickly and efficiently putting the icing on the cake with as brilliant a performance as he's put in all year, blowing away two and forcing a weak popup from Miguel Tejada for a perfect inning. He threw one of his nastiest pitches of the entire season right at the knees of Kevin Millar for a called third strike that ended the game.
As the dugout emptied for handshakes, Curt Schilling walked up behind Buchholz and patted him on the back, as Pedroia had. Curt's pat, though, reminded me a little of a moment last season when Jason Varitek touched Jonathan Papelbon following a save in August. Like he just wanted to make sure he was real.
P.S. If you have not yet read papel-blog's post on Jonathan's momentous three appearances in a row, you really, really have to. In a way, that blog is like its namesake--it doesn't come in every day, but when it does, it's always lights out.