"It’s good," Buchholz said, "to be back."
Thirty days after he trudged off the mound a beaten and bewildered man in Atlanta, Buchholz returned to the Red Sox rotation Wednesday night and immediately made good on his pledge to salvage the remainder of what has been a traumatic season for him.
Buchholz, working quickly, confidently and aggressively, survived a two-homer second inning and a three-homer night to subdue the Seattle Mariners, the Red Sox claiming the final game of a three-game set 5-4 before a crowd of 27,333 in Safeco Field.
Besides avoiding a sweep by the Mariners, who had won four straight and for now can make a better claim for a spot in the October tournament than the Sox can, the implications of Buchholz’s performance were unmistakable.
"If Clay’s right, he’s going to be great for us," said A.J. Pierzynski, who guided Buchholz through 7⅓ innings, the longest of his 11 starts this season and one in which he threw just 76 pitches. "He’s won a lot of games at this level."
The low pitch count was (1) a remarkable exercise in efficiency and (2) a testament to how eager the Mariners were to swing the bats. Manager John Farrell had no qualms about sending Buchholz out to start the eighth, although he came with the hook after Brad Miller hit a first-pitch home run to open the inning and Stefen Romero followed with a liner sliced to left that Jonny Gomes corralled with a diving catch on the track.
"He was outstanding," Farrell said. "With the exception of a three-hitter span [Kyle Seager homer, Logan Morrison single, Mike Zunino homer], he really settled in from the third inning on. I thought that the seventh inning was probably the best of the night, when he really felt comfortable with his changeup."
Seager, who had eight hits in the series, had smoked a changeup for his second home run in two nights to lead off the second. But in the seventh, Buchholz rang up his first two strikeouts of the night on changeups, Morrison and Zunino both missing off-speed offerings.
Buchholz had good life on both his four-seam and two-seam fastball -- averaging 93 mph on each and maxing out at 94.9 on his four-seamer -- and, while he still relied primarily on a fastball/cutter mix, he worked in enough of his other pitches to keep Seattle hitters off balance.
"Fundamentally, he was more compact over the rubber and in control of his body," Farrell said. "He looked confident. He looked relaxed. He was able to make pitches with four different types of pitches."
The Mariners tested Buchholz again in the sixth, with leadoff singles by Endy Chavez and James Jones, but Buchholz induced Robinson Cano -- who brought a .375 career average (12-for-32) against Buchholz into the game -- to fly out to right, and Seager grounded into a shifted Stephen Drew, who stepped on second and fired to first for a double play.
Drew went 0-for-4 and is zero for his past 27, while Gomes struck out four times in a game for the first time since 2011 and the sixth time in his career. Yet, they both made meaningful defensive plays in this game.
"There are two L’s in this game: lumber and leather," Gomes said. "You might not have one, but you can always bring the other."
Brock Holt and Daniel Nava brought both, combining for five hits at the top of the order. Holt, playing first base for Mike Napoli (toe), ended the game with a nice backhanded scoop and flip to Koji Uehara to thwart a two-on threat. He also had two more hits and scored twice. Nava, reaching base three times for the second straight night, had three singles and also threw out the hot-hitting Seager from his knees after nearly making a diving catch of his liner.
Still, the night belonged to Buchholz, winning for the first time since May 2. He said before his start that he knows there is little he can do about a horrific ERA (which he lowered from 7.02 to 6.75) but said he is focused on making whatever positive contribution he can.
"I had a lot of faith in him," Gomes said. "It was nice to see him attack with his fastball. He’s got such a good one, and it moves so much he doesn’t even have to go to his off-speed. When he trusts his fastball, good things can happen."