Clay Buchholz hadn't made a start for the Boston Red Sox since picking up a win over the Los Angeles Angels back on June 8, but Buchholz rejoined the Sox on Tuesday for their stretch run, as he was activated from the disabled list and pitched five shutout innings in Boston's 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
He surrendered three hits while striking out six and allowing one walk on 74 pitches.
It was initially unclear how much time Buchholz would miss due to neck and shoulder discomfort, but it turned into a long-term ailment as the Red Sox placed him on the 15-day disabled list on June 19 with a strained trapezius muscle, according to Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston.
Prior to the injury, Buchholz was unquestionably the best pitcher in baseball, as he sported a 9-0 record with a 1.71 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 81 strikeouts in just over 84 innings. The Red Sox got off to a fantastic start this season, and Buchholz's performances every fifth day were a big reason for that.
Although Boston has continued to thrive without him, there has been a definite hole in its rotation. Acquiring Jake Peavy from the Chicago White Sox has helped fill the void to a certain extent, but it is impossible to have too many good starting pitchers.
With a stable of arms that now includes Buchholz, Peavy, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront, the Red Sox seem very well prepared for the playoffs, assuming they finish the job and return to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Buchholz had mixed results during his rehab starts in the minor leagues, and he got off to an especially rocky start in his first rehab start with Class-A Lowell on Aug. 25, as he made it through just two-thirds of an inning, but things got progressively better from there.
Luckily for Buchholz and the Red Sox, they have the luxury of easing him back into action due to the pitching depth that is already on the roster. Buchholz will have a difficult time replicating the success he had early in the season, as he was the AL Cy Young front-runner at that point, but simply contributing a few solid outings should be good enough.
With the Tampa Bay Rays posing a stiff challenge for the AL East crown, Buchholz's return couldn't possibly come at a better time. The Rays have a dominant pitching staff in their own right, featuring the likes of David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer, but now the Red Sox have the horses necessary to match them man for man and sport a 8.5-game cushion over Tampa.
In many ways, Buchholz's injury may ultimately be considered a blessing in disguise for the Red Sox. Buchholz has never pitched more than 189.1 innings in a season, but he was on pace for well over 200 before the injury occurred. That could have led to some complications, including breaking down when the games mattered most.
That is no longer a concern, though, as Buchholz is fresh, and he should be ready to operate on a normal pitch count in the near future. The Red Sox were already a team to be reckoned with ahead of the playoffs, but the return of Buchholz may very well make them the favored team to come out of the AL and even win the World Series.
It is often said that defense wins championships in the NFL, and the same is true of pitching in Major League Baseball. The Red Sox already have one of the league's best lineups, and now they most definitely have a dynamite rotation to match.
The progress of Buchholz promises to be one of the most intriguing storylines in the entire league as the playoffs quickly approach.
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