By Maureen Mullen
BOSTON After a rain delay of two hours and seven minutes before the third inning, the last pitcher anyone expected to see on the mound at Fenway Park was Clay Buchholz, who started the game. But that's exactly who was there.
Buchholz threw 29 pitches (21 strikes) in the first two innings against the Twins Saturday afternoon. When play was halted at 1:53 p.m., he had a 1-0 lead.
It was an unorthodox move for Buchholz to resume the game, and it never would have happened if not for the overload of work the Sox bullpen has endured over the last few days. In the previous three games, Red Sox relievers pitched a combined 18 13 innings.
Both of Terry Francona's long relievers -- Tim Wakefield (who was forced to start because the scheduled pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, had been pressed into relief duty in Wednesday's rain-delayed 13-inning game) and Alfredo Aceves -- had pitched Friday and were unavailable Saturday. Had Buchholz not returned, the Sox would have been forced to squeeze seven innings (and maybe more, if the game had gone beyond the ninth) out of five pitchers, most of whom are not stretched out to work more than an inning at a time.
Still, it was a difficult decision.
It always is, said pitching coach Curt Young. You hate that any time there's a rain delay. Thats why we tried to definitely keep Buchholz moving. He played catch in the batting cage four different times, with a little bit of rest in between. So that kept him relatively hot, and head trainer Mike Reinold did everything he could to keep him stretched out.
Buchholz came out for the third inning, needing just eight pitches (seven strikes) to get three outs. He struck out Luke Hughes on three pitches, before getting Denard Span and Trevor Plouffe to foul out.
Francona was confident sending Buchholz back out to the mound.
He really felt pretty good, Francona said. Hes got an extra day going into the next start because of an off-day May 12 and we took him out after five innings because that is a lot to ask. Saying that, if you dont send Buck out there were going to have to pitch somebody else too much.
He did it once last year and handled it very well. So we tried to get the best out of what we could, and he did a great job. He went back out there and I thought his touch and feel of his pitches was better.
It was one of Buchholzs best performances of the season. He went five scoreless innings, with season-lows in hits (two) and walks (one) and a season-high six strikeouts against the team that entered the game with the fewest strikeouts in baseball (167) as the Sox beat the Twins, 4-0. Buchholz, who improved to 3-3 with a 4.19 ERA, threw 61 pitches, 44 for strikes.
It was his first shutout performance of the season, and first since Aug. 22 against Toronto.
It was the first time of the year that I was able to throw all my pitches for strikes at a point, Buchholz said. You dont go out there every day and have the luxury of those days and whenever you do have it you come out there and throw a different first-pitch strike to a couple of guys that you know can hit a ball a long way.
So, I was able to mix it up a bit. Threw a couple of pitches that were up in the zone that got popups . . . and was able to get out of the inning. Yeah, everything felt good today.
During the delay, Buchholz threw in the batting cage under the stands behind the Red Sox dugout. He wasnt throwing at maximum effort, but it was more than just playing catch.
Well, our cage is a little short down there, Young said. So he wasnt at 60 feet. It was about 50 feet, but with our catcher. So it wasnt just him playing catch. He was still throwing his pitches.
Buchholz knew from the start of the delay that he would likely be going back out, which helped him adjust.
Right when it started, they said it was going to be 45 minutes, Buchholz said. And I said, Okay, well, I can definitely stay loose for 45 minutes. It got to 45 minutes and they said it was going to be another hour.
It was different . . . If I would have thrown 50 pitches in the first two innings, it probably wouldnt have happened, probably would have gotten a little stiff. But I felt like I could go out there and do it. Played some long toss before I went back in the bullpen, felt fine, and I felt fine throwing out there too. So, it worked out good.
It worked out for the bullpen, too, which is close to getting back to normal. When Buchholz was done, Rich Hill, Matt Albers, Daniel Bard, and Jonathan Papelbon each pitched a scoreless inning.
Buchholz at least making five innings and then everyone else going one inning helps with everybody else for tomorrow, Young said.
Daisukes rest got interrupted a little bit with the 13-inning game the other night. So I think once we get by Sunday well feel real good about where everybody is bullpen-wise and starter-wise.
Maureen Mullen is on Twitter at http:twitter.commaureenamullen