Strong start needed from Clay Buchholz

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester was outstanding Friday night. Teammate and fellow pitcher Clay Buchholz needs to be superb on Saturday.

This is a crucial series for Boston and it began with a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Lester, coming off the worst start of his career last outing, rebounded and led the Red Sox with his seven-inning, two-hit, one-unearned run performance. The southpaw struck out 10 en route to his 14th victory of the season.

As important as the win was for the Red Sox, it's already history and Buchholz will need a similar performance.

His teammates have all the faith in him, especially given that Buchholz has remained consistent all season.

"It's exciting and it's good to see him grow and gain that confidence," Lester said. "It's a funny game as far as how it can humble you at any time. He's been able to control that and keep his highs at a minimum and keep his lows at a minimum. He has stayed even-keeled the whole year and he's done a good job."

Buchholz enters his 23rd start of the season with a 15-5 record and a league-leading 2.26 ERA. He's has a 1-1 record against the Rays this season with an 0.82 ERA in two starts. Overall, he's 3-2 with a 1.93 ERA in six career starts against Tampa.

As far as Buchholz's overall season, which is his first full season in the big leagues, the 26-year-old right-hander is contending for a Cy Young Award but he'll be the first to tell you he's not concentrating on postseason awards.

"No. I think it's -- especially being my first full season -- sometimes you have to take it for what it's worth," he said. "Yeah, I'm having a good year, but [the Cy Young] is not something I personally go out and think about. I'm worried about going out there and throwing innings, getting outs and helping this team win some ball games down the stretch."

The right-hander is more concerned with putting a string of solid starts together in hopes of catching the Rays and the New York Yankees in the AL East.

If he's able to remain consistent in the final five weeks of the season, and he's able to get run support, there's a strong possibility a certain award could have his name on it. Sure, Buchholz is focused on the task at hand, but it would be satisfying if it actually happened.

"It's an honor over anything else," he said. "The names that are brought up anytime you talk about that, it's definitely good company. Things are going well so far this year. It's hasn't all been me, there have been times I should have gotten a loss in the game, but the team bailed me out. The numbers part is definitely a team effort."

This season has been a rewarding one for Buchholz, but he'll never allow his difficult development to be far from his mind.

The one-time pitching prospect is best known for tossing a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 1, 2007 in only his second big league start. But he dealt with more adversity than success prior to this season, and the game has humbled him.

"You learn from mistakes and there's been a lot of things I've learned from over the past two years," he said. "Even during my struggles I had people telling me, 'You're going to learn from this and this is going to be a good process.' Obviously you don't want to ever struggle, but when you do, it's a matter of stepping back."

After he tossed that no-hitter, the Red Sox shut him down due to strength issues in his shoulder. Then in August of 2008, he was sent from to Double-A Portland because he couldn't deal with the struggles he was having in the majors. It was so bad he actually thought about quitting.

Fortunately, the Red Sox never quit on him.

Current Red Sox backup catcher Kevin Cash is in his second stint with Boston. His first came in 2007 when he spent the majority of the season at Triple-A Pawtucket with Buchholz. In fact, the two were batterymates when Buchholz made his last start of the '08 season at Baltimore before he was optioned to Portland.

Cash remembers it vividly.

Buchholz allowed five runs on three hits with three walks in 2 1/3 innings of work. After the game at Camden Yards, Buchholz was almost in tears, completely in disbelief because he couldn't explain what was happening to his promising career.

"You felt bad for him because you could just tell, you didn't know how many thoughts were going through his mind in between each pitch," Cash said. "Now you watch him and his composure around the mound, everything has drastically changed."

"He's been awesome," added Cash. "More or less, he didn't quite know what he was doing [in '08]. He had so many weapons, he didn't know what was going on. Now, obviously, watching him and how he goes through his routine, he knows exactly what he's capable of doing and he comes close to that every start he goes out.

"He's dominated the league, but he's also dominated the AL East and, to me, that's the toughest thing to do."

Buchholz needs to stay consistent if the Red Sox are to earn a postseason berth, and Saturday will be another crucial start for him.

The one thing he's learned this season is he'd rather focus on the future, but he hasn't turned away from the past completely.

"I think the past will always be brought up because it's two completely different sides of the spectrum," Buchholz said. "I'll always say that I learned from it, but I never want to get back to that point. I've learned a lot and I've had to grow up a lot -- in the game and life in general. It's been a fun process. Not everything was fun, but now getting the results has been fun."

There's still a strong possibility he could add his name to the Cy Young Award no matter how the Red Sox season turns out.

"At the end of the season, hopefully something happens where I'm mentioned in that category," Buchholz said. "That would be awesome."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.