Saturday, September 01, 2007

It's gonna be ecstasy/This place is meant for me

Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer won 268 games in 20 seasons in the major leagues. He was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1990 on the first ballot. He knows more about pitching than he does about jockey shorts.

So when, as the story goes, he banged on the glass to the Red Sox radio booth in the third inning last night to inform Joe Castiglione that the 23-year-old on the mound for Boston reminded him of himself, it was confirmation enough that, yes, Clay Buchholz has the substance to match the hype.

Six innings later, Buchholz and Palmer had the same number of career no-hitters: one. Baseball symmetry sure is funny like that.

So now we know why Palmer, hardly an easy grader of young pitchers, was smitten after watching Buchholz for a mere three innings. Now we know what the summer-long buzz in Portland and Pawtucket was about. Buchholz made the Orioles look like castoffs from the Altoona Curve, striking out nine, walking three, and becoming more impressive the closer he got to completing the 18th Red Sox no-hitter and the 21st by a rookie in baseball history. He was dazzling, dominant, pick your own adjective. Nope, it was not a bad second big league start at all.

While this "feat of Clay" (as the Globe headline put it after his first start; fits better this morning don't you think?) puts Buchholz on the radar of fans who aren't "Baseball America" subscribers, a no-hitter is no guarantee of future greatness - or even of future mediocrity, really. Anyone seen Mike Warren lately? Hello, Bud Smith, are you out there? But there's a reason I've yowled since he was overmatching Eastern League hitters back in the spring that this kid can help the Red Sox this season: this is no ordinary phenom. As Buchholz demonstrated time and again last night, he owns three top-notch major-league pitches, including a drop-dead changeup, a curveball that might rival Josh Beckett's as the best on the staff, and a fastball with that little Maddux-style tail that cuts back over the outside corner to a righty. His command can go on the fritz on occasion, but he has a repertoire to win in the majors immediately - I'll let you decide whether we should call his stuff "filthy" or merely "electric" - and it became apparent, as Fenway rocked and rollicked in the late innings, that poise and composure are also among his attributes. There is no doubt that he can give the Red Sox the boost Jonathan Papelbon gave them in '05, the boost Joba Chamberlain and perhaps Ian Kennedy are giving New York now.

Hell, he already has . . . and while I'm not a huge believer in "signature" wins, we all know that this couldn't have happened at a better time. The Sox had lost four in row, including three straight to the rejuvenated Yankees in the Bronx. Cleanup hitter Manny Ramirez has an ominous oblique injury, Tim Wakefield's back is acting up, Tito Francona is being forced to play "Project Runway" in the middle of games, and the days don't seem to be coming off the calendar fast enough. They needed this.

The question, as it was happening, was would they get it. The cynic in you thought Millar, that rascally ol' Cowboy with such a history here, would be the one to spoil the moment. Or maybe Jay Payton, the sour clubhouse lawyer and the only veteran player we know of to wear out Francona's patience, would ruin the party. But the Orioles, who seem intent on setting a franchise record for humiliating losses this season, went down with a whimper, Nick Markakis looking at the final, physics-defying breaking ball of the night.

Cue the pandemonium on the field. Which reminds us - Buchholz wasn't the only Red Sox who should be basking in this. Sure, no-hitters go into the record books as a solo effort, one name recorded forever in the small type. But we all know they are often a team accomplishment, and such was the case last night. Coco Crisp, who is playing such a consistently graceful/dazzling center field this season that he's giving ol' Gammons flashbacks of Paul Blair, typically made several difficult catches look routine. And Dustin Pedroia, the underestimated rookie second baseman, made the play that will be featured in NESN promos for the next 20 years, diving to his right spear Miguel Tejada's skidding rocket in the seventh inning, rising to throw out the hustling Oriole, then punctuating his web gem with a fine choice of expletives. Or maybe he just said, "Buch, yeah!"

Either way, Pedroia earned the right to enjoy the moment, for it made the night's bigger moment possible. Clay Buchholz: two starts, two wins . . . and one no-hitter. Amazing.

He's set the bar pretty high for his third start, no?

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