Clay Buchholz back in big way

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The in-game reviews followed a similar theme.

"A little nervous at the start."

"So far, so good."

"Relaxing into it."

"Just had to find his rhythm."

"Got over his initial jitters and is doing a great job."

Clay Buchholz?

No, those were tweeters commenting on the broadcasting debut of former Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe, who served as the color commentator on NESN's telecast of the Rays-Red Sox game Tuesday night.

The irrepressible Lowe had a few more rough spots in the booth than Buchholz had on the mound, where he returned with a flourish after a 94-day absence, pitching five scoreless innings in a 2-0 win over the Rays that drew October ever closer.

"It's really good to see Clay back on the mound for us," Red Sox manager John Farrell said calmly, while the inner Farrell was surely doing his best Koji Uehara impression, wildly high-fiving every crackling neuron that came close.

"A healthy Clay Buchholz is going to be a great addition," Farrell said. "He showed it tonight. We've probably got three weeks to continue to build him up from a stamina standpoint, but to see him walk to the mound, I think it gave everybody a boost of confidence."

Buchholz allowed only three singles, a walk and struck out six while throwing 74 pitches, near the limit Farrell had projected for him before the game.

"In time he'll have more, but with the increase in intensity, we didn't want to jump the intensity, plus another 15 pitches," Farrell said. "That might have been a little much the first time back."

His fastball topped out at 93, he got swings and misses on both his changeup and curve and looked very much at home while dueling with Rays ace David Price, who threw a career-high 127 pitches in a bid to win a game his team needed to keep alive its remote hopes of catching the Sox in the division race.

"I was able to miss the fat part of the bat, was able to get some ground balls, Salty [Jarrod Saltalamacchia] was able to throw a couple runners out, so yeah, overall I felt good," Buchholz said.

Buchholz's days leading up to this start have hardly been uneventful. There were the three rehab starts, of course, plus last Wednesday, when his wife Lindsey gave birth to the couple's second daughter, Landry.

"No story behind the name," Buchholz said. "My wife liked it and picked it out. I wouldn't have known what to name her."

Mother and daughter are both doing well, and so is Buchholz.

"To be able to go into a game like this after not pitching in a big league game for that long, and to be able to keep your poise and just look like it's any other game, that's tough to do," said Saltalamacchia, who cut down David DeJesus and Matt Joyce at second in successive innings with strong throws.

Buchholz's most trying moments Tuesday probably came in the hours leading up to the game.

"Anxious is probably the best way to describe it," he said. "I got here a little bit earlier than I usually do today. It's been a long time coming for me, so I'm definitely happy to be back out there."

And now Landry has arrived in time to be present for what could be her 29-year-old father's first trip to the World Series. Buchholz's only postseason experience came in 2009, when John Lackey and the Angels swept the Sox in the AL Division Series. There are other hurdles to cross before then, of course, but Buchholz's win Tuesday, which made his record 10-0 with a 1.61 ERA, further smoothed the way to Boston's first division title since 2007 -- which is also the last time they won the Series.

The Sox's magic number to win the AL East is now 10. With 16 games to play, they're 30 games over .500 and their lead over the Rays is back to 8 ½ games. The 2007 season is the only other one since 1995 where the Sox have been that far ahead.

On Aug. 24, the Rays were percentage points ahead of the Sox. Since then, they are a major-league worst 4-12, while the Sox are a big league best 12-3.

"There's not a whole lot you can do right now," Rays manager Joe Maddon told reporters, "except keep playing."

The Rays still are holding onto the second wild-card spot, and didn't lose any ground to their closest pursuers, the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians, who both lost to remain 1 ½ games behind Tampa Bay, with the New York Yankees closing to within two games. The Kansas City Royals are three games back.

Price was brilliant, allowing just three hits, walking no one and striking out nine. He set down the first 12 Sox in order until Mike Napoli doubled off the glove of leaping center fielder Desmond Jennings at the wall to open the fifth.

"I just kept going to the wall," Jennings told reporters. "I reached out to get it and I didn't reach out high enough. It's a play that should have been made."

Then Jonny Gomes, who has remained close friends with Price since their days as teammates, bounced a single up the middle and Napoli beat a dreadful throw from Jennings to score.

Gomes took second on the throw, went to third on a bunt by Daniel Nava and scored on Saltalamacchia's deep drive sacrifice to center.

The hit was Gomes's first in 10 at-bats against his old friend this season. Overdue? Gomes looked semi-incredulous.

"That's an ace, a Cy Young guy," Gomes said. "Not too many people have success off him. Oh for 10. That's a small dosage. Ten at-bats, it's easy for a guy like that to get you out twice with four of his pitches. That's eight. He can have all the oh-fers he wants against me as long as we win."

Craig Breslow furnished the Sox two scoreless innings in relief before giving way to Junichi Tazawa, who gave up a two-out double to Yunel Escobar.

Farrell went to the bullpen again, summoning Uehara, who retired Wil Myers on a foul pop to first to end the inning, then carved up the Rays in the ninth, striking out Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce to end it.

Uehara's scoreless streak is now 28 ⅓ innings. That's the longest by a Sox reliever since Dick Radatz went 33 straight scoreless innings in 1963. That's 50 years ago. Radatz was known as the Monster. That's Kaibutsu, if you're scoring at home in Tokyo. Daisuke Matsuzaka, incidentally, had that nickname during better days in Japan. Uehara certainly can make a claim to it here.

"To be in the same uniform, in the same dugout, to see a guy this efficient -- it's a very calm inning when he comes to the mound, and that was the case again tonight," Farrell said.