ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In his return to the mound after an absence of just over three months, Clay Buchholz learned two important things Tuesday night.
One was that his troublesome right shoulder is sound and he again can pitch like the All-Star he was before the injury. Buchholz threw five strong and surprisingly effective innings as the Red Sox shut out the Tampa Bay Rays, 2-0.
The second? It sure is a secure feeling to have Koji Uehara closing out games.
“It’s unbelievable. The guy is unbelievable. That’s the only word I can use to describe it,” Buchholz said after watching Uehara get the final four outs. “He’s the best there is right now. It’s fun to watch.”
A small gathering of 18,605 saw Buchholz and three relievers hold the Rays to four hits. The Sox also had four hits, but two came in the fifth inning when they scored both runs.
The Sox extended their lead to 8½ games on the Rays in the American League East with only 16 games to play. The Sox have won six of seven and nine of their last 11 games.
With Oakland losing, the Sox also have a four-game lead for the best record in the AL and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The fading Rays have dropped 12 of 16. They have a 1½-game lead on the Orioles and Indians for the final wild-card spot.
Andrew Bailey was the closer when Buchholz last pitched in June. Uehara was one of the set-up men at that point, his promotion coming a few weeks later, when Bailey was lost to a shoulder injury.
Uehara has been nearly unhittable since. In 33 appearances since being named the closer he has allowed one earned run over 35⅔ innings and struck out 49.
Uehara has not allowed a run in 28⅓ innings and has retired the last 31 batters he has faced, striking out 14. It’s the longest streak for a Red Sox pitcher since Hideo Nomo also retired 31 in a row in 2001.
“I have huge respect for him. He’s somebody that I looked up to,” Uehara said via interpreter C.J. Matsumoto. “He’s on another level.”
Uehara needed only 13 pitches to record the four outs, 12 of them strikes. The save was his 19th on the season.
Farrell said he never has watched a reliever pitch this well in person.
“To be in the same uniform and the same dugout, to see a guy who has been this efficient; as we’ve said, it’s a very calm inning when he comes to the mound,” he said.
While the manager may be calm, Uehara said he always is nervous when he enters the game.
“That hasn’t changed,” he said. “That’s probably why I express my feelings when I get the hitters out.”
Jarrod Saltalamacchia jokingly suggested that Uehara should honor his streak by buying Rolex watches for the team’s catchers.
“I want something,” Uehara shot back.
Buchholz (10-0) looked like a pitcher getting ready for the postseason. He allowed three singles, walked one, and struck out six. His 74 pitches were precisely what the Red Sox were hoping for.
“I felt good. I had some counts where I had to throw a strike,” Buchholz said. “The offspeed stuff was pretty good. There were a couple of times I didn’t really follow through in my delivery or stay back in my delivery.”
Buchholz, who has a 1.61 earned run average, had excellent command and hit 93 miles-per-hour with his fastball. His changeup and cutter, two important secondary pitches, were effective.
“Those were the two pitches coming in here tonight to keep an aggressive team a little bit in check,” Farrell said.
Buchholz could make as many as three more starts before the end of the regular season. That should be adequate to prepare him for the postseason.
“I think realistically, just to maintain steady progress over the final there weeks is the ultimate goal here,” Farrell said.
David Price (8-8) threw a career-high 127 pitches — the most for any Tampa Bay pitcher since 2004 — as the desperate Rays tried to reverse their slump. He allowed two runs on three hits and struck out nine without a walk.
Price retired the first 12 Red Sox in order. But perfection cost him 59 pitches to that point and the Sox had hit several balls hard.
Mike Napoli opened the fifth inning by driving a high changeup to center. Desmond Jennings caught up to the ball but couldn’t make the play and Napoli had a double.
Jonny Gomes, 3 for 18 in his career against Price, fell behind 0 and 2 but came back to ground a cutter into center field for a single.
Napoli came around to score, as the throw from Jennings was well wide of the plate. Gomes, an alert base runner, took second on the throw.
“When you’re in the middle of the order, your job is to drive in a run,” Gomes said.
Daniel Nava sacrificed Gomes to third base. Saltalamacchia, 1 for 13 in his career against Price, came through with a drive to center that backed Jennings up against the wall. He caught the ball but it went for a sacrifice fly.
Craig Breslow worked two innings. Junichi Tazawa allowed a two-out double by Yunel Escobar in the eighth inning, prompting Farrell to turn to Uehara. He needed three pitches to get Wil Myers to foul out.
“At this point, we’re surprised when he doesn’t throw a strike,” Gomes said. “This team has a lot of guys like Koji who are better than what some people expected. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.