Rounding Third: Healthy Buchholz tips AL scales toward Red Sox

If you were one of those people who thought the Boston Red Sox didn't have enough starting pitching to make a deep October run, well Clay Buchholz may beg to differ.

Buchholz was the best pitcher in baseball through the first two-plus months of the season, racking up a 9-0 mark to go along with a stingy 1.71 ERA. But after giving up two runs in 6 2/3 innings in a win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on June 8, Buchholz was sidelined for more than three months with a right bursa sac strain.

The right-hander returned to a big league mound on Tuesday against Tampa Bay, and showed no signs of rust, as he scattered three hits and struck out six over five scoreless innings to get the win and lower his overall ERA to an amazing 1.61.

"I had a lot of three-ball counts, and that's probably the worst thing I could say about it," Buchholz said. "I was able to miss the fat part of the bat and get some ground balls. Getting a couple of runners thrown out helps. It felt good.

"I just want to build up now and maybe after next time I won't have to worry about pitch counts. I just want to help this team in October. It's been fun to watch them even though it's been frustrating not to participate. I've had to be patient and now I'm able to get out there. I just want to do my part."

Buchholz, who some thought would not pitch again this season, hadn't looked particularly impressive in any of his three minor league rehab starts and struggled at times with his velocity.

There were no such concerns on Tuesday, however, as Buchholz consistently threw 92-93 mph.

"To see him walk to the mound, I think it gave everybody a boost in confidence," Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Buchholz.

With Tuesday's 2-0 win over the Rays, Boston now has an 8 1/2-game advantage in the AL East and a 4 1/2-game edge for the best overall record in the league. Its magic number to clinch the division is 10.

So, it's been no secret to anyone the Red Sox would be playing in October.

Even with the playoffs being a certainty for some time, starting pitching has been a huge issue for this club ever since Buchholz went down. After using the likes of Alfredo Aceves, Brandon Workman, Allen Webster and even Franklin Morales, the Red Sox had to go get another starter and acquired Jake Peavy from the Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline.

But, even after getting Peavy, it was still a staff that didn't instill a lot of fear in opposing lineups, especially those heading to the playoffs.

A healthy Buchholz in that mix changes things. A lot.

Let's be honest, Buchholz, Peavy and Jon Lester is a lot more formidable than any group that includes Ryan Dempster or Felix Doubront.

So while the starting staff seems to be getting itself right, how about the job Koji Uehara has done for Farrell's bullpen?

Thrust into a closer's role after season-ending injuries to both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, Uehara has been a godsend for the Red Sox. He picked up his 19th save on Tuesday and lowered his ERA to 1.10, while extending his streak of retired batters to 31. That ties the record for a Red Sox pitcher, equaling fellow Japanese righty Hideo Nomo, who pulled off that same streak as a starting pitcher in 2001.

"To be in the same uniform, in the same dugout, to see a guy who's been this efficient -- at one point, I think he was 12-for-12 strikes thrown," Farrell said. "As we've said, it's a very calm inning when he comes to the mound, and that was the case again tonight."

As good as Uehara has been, though, the Red Sox will go only as far as their starting staff takes them come October. They didn't just add another pitcher for the stretch run, they added their ace.

They may once again be the favorites to come out of the AL.