- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The rubber game of this, ahem, World Series preview takes place Sunday night here at Chavez Ravine.
But the key to whether the Red Sox even make it to October, and how deep into the postseason they go, might well be foreshadowed hours earlier in the tiny hamlet of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., about a 3½-hour drive from Boston, hard by the Hudson River and far from the national TV cameras.
It is there, in Dutchess Stadium on Route 9D, that Clay Daniel Buchholz, 11 days after his 29th birthday and 78 days since he last stood on a mound in a professional ballgame, is scheduled to begin the final stage of his progression back to the Red Sox rotation. First pitch is slated for 5:05 p.m., three hours before Chris Capuano of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jake Peavy of the Red Sox square off here.
Buchholz will be pitching for the short-season Class A Lowell Spinners, the team with which he began his pro career in 2005, against the Hudson Valley Renegades, who, in a fitting coincidence, are an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, the team which poses a clear and present danger to Boston's hopes of winning the AL East.
He is supposed to throw 45-50 pitches, which should take him through about three innings. Assuming all goes as planned, he will take the mound again Friday, at a minor league site to be determined. Triple-A Pawtucket and Double-A Portland are both scheduled to be home that night.
After that? Even if he's not ready to go deep into the night, Red Sox manager John Farrell suggested Buchholz could well start Fenway Park on Sept. 4 against the AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers, which would put him on track to make his next start Sept. 10 at Tropicana Field against the Rays.
"Clay's got to get through two steps first before we get to that point," Farrell said. "[But] if he's at four innings, we'd certainly be open-minded to him going four innings. If they're going to be four quality innings, we'd rather they be here than at Fort Myers."
When someone joked that the Sox were waiting to see which team needed Buchholz most for its playoff push, Pawtucket or Portland, Farrell said: "That would be us."
What is the likelihood that we will see quality from Buchholz, who was undefeated (9-0) and whose ERA of 1.71 was the best in baseball when he was shut down with shoulder bursitis?
The Red Sox have been very cautious in couching their expectations, but Farrell said Saturday he believes Buchholz is past the injury phase and building back arm strength.
"I think yesterday's bullpen was the best the ball has come out of his hands in any session to date," Farrell said.
The timing of Buchholz's return could represent something of a perfect storm for the Red Sox, coming at a time when Jon Lester, who held the Dodgers to a run on three hits in 7⅓ innings Saturday after shutting out the San Francisco Giants on six hits over 8⅓ innings last Monday, is back at the top of his form, John Lackey has been money every time out and Peavy has made three good starts in his four outings since coming in a trade with the Chicago White Sox.
The Sox have five off days in the last month of the season, all coming after Buchholz's possible return. That gives Farrell the flexibility of going to a four-man rotation if he so chooses, and that's not to diminish the contributions left-hander Felix Doubront has made this season. Ryan Dempster, currently serving a five-game suspension for hitting Alex Rodriguez with a pitch, would seem to be the leading candidate to go to the bullpen, though Farrell won't come anywhere near making that declaration until Buchholz's return is certain.
"In no particular order, Peavy, Lester, Lackey, Buchholz, Doubie's been throwing good. Dempster's holding his own," catcher David Ross said. "I would hate to go into Boston and face those guys. And Doubie has been one of our most consistent pitchers after the first month. He's done a great job. That's a pretty good four.
"The credit to our team is that we've stayed consistent, and the only way you can stay consistent is starting pitching, and those guys have done it. Those guys have done a really good job. Even when a guy has a bad outing, the next guy picks him up."
And now, Buchholz is about to be added.
"It's a huge boost," said Jonny Gomes, whose three-run home run in the first was the game's decisive blow. "Kind of ironic, but when I break down teams that I've won on -- 2008 with the Rays David Price came up in late August. 2010; Reds, Edinson Volquez came back in September. Last year, Oakland -- Brett Anderson came back from an injury.
"So we're on pace."
And so, after an extended midseason detour, is Lester. He has allowed one earned run in 15⅔ innings on this West Coast swing and is now 4-1 with a 2.31 ERA in his past seven starts. Farrell said he has been more powerful in his past two starts than any time since April.
"Whether or not he's catching his wind in the second half of the season -- it could very well be -- but, most importantly, it's the command and power of his fastball," Farrell said. "That sets up everything for him."
Gomes said Lester took Gomes' three-run home run "and ran with it."
"I don't think he's reinventing himself," Gomes said. "I just think he's gotten back on track."
While Ross was on his extended sabbatical with a concussion, he said he watched Lester pitch on TV and come away wondering what would happen if Lester relied almost solely on his fastball. He got his answer Saturday.
"I don't know what the numbers are, but he probably threw 85 percent fastballs today," Ross said. "He just pumped it. And most of his pitches were either on the black or just off it."
With his yield of just one run Saturday, Lester lowered his ERA to 3.97, the lowest it has been since June 10 and down from 4.52 just three weeks ago.
"Obviously, I know what I'm capable of," Lester said. "It's just a matter of going out and doing it. Since the break, I've felt good physically, I feel like I'm in a good place throwing the ball right now. Just keep going, and, hopefully, we can take tomorrow, have a good West Coast trip and get back home for a change."
Home, where reinforcements might be awaiting. We'll all know better after a Sunday afternoon in Wappingers Falls.