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The Boston Globe

Sports

Christopher L. Gasper

Clay Buchholz slowly regaining his form

Clay Buchholz threw the most pitches he has since his comeback (106) without pain or issue.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Clay Buchholz threw the most pitches he has since his comeback (106) without pain or issue.

Just as they cleansed their clubhouse figuratively to pave the way for a return to the playoffs, the Red Sox literally cleaned it, scrubbing away the remnants of their raucous, playoff-clinching baseball bacchanalia from Friday night.

The scent of stale beer and champagne showers — the sweet smell of accomplishment — was gone from the clubhouse on Saturday. In its wake was the overwhelming odor of carpet cleaner and confidence.

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If there is to be another celebratory night of baseball left in this season with the alcohol and camaraderie overflowing, the Sox need Clay Buchholz to return to the dominant form he displayed before his season was derailed by a curious shoulder/neck injury that had more plot twists and turns than a telenovela.

Buchholz restored to his spring vintage for autumn baseball would be a cause to pop some champagne in its own right. It didn’t happen last night, but there were signs pointing to its occurrence, even as the Blue Jays handed the dried-out Sox a 4-2 loss at Fenway Park.

While Buchholz (11-1) lost for the first time this season, going six innings and allowing three runs (two earned), he gained more confidence as he tries to re-establish the repertoire that allowed him to start the season 9-0 with a 1.71 earned run average.

“As far as Clay is concerned, the stuff that he had, the endurance that he showed, [it’s] a positive night for him,” said manager John Farrell.

A case can be made that no player is more pivotal to the Red Sox postseason hopes than Buchholz, who entered the game 11-0 with a 1.51 ERA.

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Yes, Jon Lester is probably going to draw the Game 1 start in the American League Division Series. Lester has earned it by virtue of a sterling second half in which he heeded the words of Socrates and rediscovered himself. John Lackey has been the most consistent pitcher for the Sox from start to finish, and has become a symbol of this team’s repentance and redemption.

But it is on the slender frame of Buchholz on which the Red Sox’ aspirations of an Octoberfest may hinge.

If Saturday night was any indication, Buchholz is honing in on finding the form that had him on a Cy Young track, but his GPS is still calculating.

“I’m feeling good,” said Buchholz, who allowed six hits, while striking out two and walking two. “The movement on the pitches is there. It’s just the command and location, where to start it is sometimes hard to get at. The movement was a lot better. I felt like the velocity was pretty much where it was earlier in the season, and the body feels good.”

Buchholz was making his third start since returning from the disabled list after being sidelined for three months by bursitis in his right shoulder/ a neck strain. He threw the most pitches he has since his comeback (106) without pain or issue, and said he could have gone back out for the seventh.

The ace-in-progress was perfect through three innings. But the Blue Jays, baseball’s biggest bust this season, broke through for three runs in the fourth, when Buchholz’s defense let him down. The inning should have been over on a grounder to third by Brett Lawrie, but Xander Bogaerts had a difficult time getting the ball out of his glove; Lawrie beat the throw to first.

The next batter, Adam Lind, sent a shot to deep center that ticked off the glove of Shane Victorino, scoring Lawrie. After Moises Sierra singled past a diving Stephen Drew, Rajai Davis hit a bloop single to left to score Lind.

Buchholz had himself to blame for the third run of the inning, as his errant pickoff throw eluded Will Middlebrooks, who was making his first career start at first base, allowing Sierra to score.

“If we would have gotten out of that one inning with minimum damage we could have ended up winning the game,” said Buchholz. “But I let it snowball on me a little bit.”

Toronto is the only team to beat the Red Sox with Buchholz on the mound this season. The Sox entered 13-1 in starts by Buchholz. The Blue Jays collected a 3-2 victory over Buchholz and the Sox on May 11.

Mark Buehrle, who opposed Buchholz last night, was also on the mound for that game.

Of course the backstory with Buchholz and the Blue Jays is more memorable for the cries from Toronto broadcasters earlier this season that Buchholz was lubing up the baseball like a rusty bicycle chain. That seems like it happened eons ago.

Even with Buchholz on the mound and the mend, there was an obvious emotional letdown after the euphoria of the Sox clinching the American League East the night before.

The lineup Farrell trotted out for the game hinted at the Sox catching their breath after a 155-game sprint to the division title.

It takes an act of congress for Dustin Pedroia’s name to not be on the lineup card. But Pedroia, reluctantly, sat in favor of John McDonald. The indefatigable Sox second baseman entered the game as a pinch hitter in the seventh.

Middlebrooks made his inaugural start at first base. Jonny Gomes started a game in the cleanup spot for only the third time all year, and Drew hit in the leadoff spot for the first time all season.

This felt like the night after the all-nighter.

There was no champagne or revelry Saturday night, only a quiet, and largely deserted clubhouse afterward.

But Buchholz taking another step toward being a reliable part of the playoff rotation was cause for celebration.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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