ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Clay Buchholz professed not to remember much about the last time he pitched in a playoff game for the Red Sox.
“It was against the Angels and we didn’t end up winning,” he said. “That’s about all I got.”
To fill in some of the gaps, it was Game 3 of a Division Series on Oct. 11, 2009, at Fenway Park. Buchholz went five innings and left with a 5-2 lead only to watch Billy Wagner and Jonathan Papelbon give up five runs.
The Sox were eliminated and did not return to the playoffs until this season. Buchholz, who was 25 at the time, since has gotten married, had two children, and signed a long-term contract with the Sox.
Now, finally, he gets another chance at the postseason and this time it’s the Red Sox who are in a position to sweep. Buchholz starts against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night with the Red Sox up, 2-0, in the best-of-five series.
The Red Sox waited until Sunday morning to fly here. The team went directly to Tropicana Field and worked out for about 90 minutes.
Buchholz threw briefly in the bullpen and met with reporters to discuss what will be one of the biggest starts of his career and one he wasn’t sure he would be able to make a few months ago.
Buchholz was on the disabled list from June 9 to Sept. 10 with a lingering shoulder injury. After a series of setbacks, he sought the advice of Dr. James Andrews.
“At one point it was a struggle for me mentally to know that I’d been out for an extended period of time, a lot longer than I wanted to be out,” Buchholz said. “The throwing wasn’t near as therapeutic as I thought it was supposed to be or going to be. It just never got any better. I finally had to take two steps back to get moving in the right direction.”
Andrews gave Buchholz assurances that the injury would heal and put him on a program to strengthen his shoulder. He returned to the Red Sox in September and made four starts, compiling a 1.88 earned run average.
“Physically there are no restrictions,” manager John Farrell said. “Since coming off the DL we’ve been able to progress him to a pitch count and comfortably get north of 100 pitches.”
Buchholz is no ordinary Game 3 starter. He was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA before the injury and made the All-Star team. Buchholz also is 7-5 with a 2.42 ERA in 16 career starts against the Rays. His ERA at Tropicana Field is 2.26 in nine starts.
If not for the injury, Buchholz might have started Game 1 instead of Jon Lester.
“He’s thrown the ball well against us,” Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. “We definitely need to do our homework and be prepared for him. He’s a top-of-the-rotation kind of guy. We’ll go back and see what he’s done to us and try and prepare that way and hopefully be able to handle the mistakes that he makes. Every pitcher makes a few mistakes in a game.”
Said Rays manager Joe Maddon: “This guy is really, really good. He’s always pitched well against us in this ballpark. He presents a lot of challenges.”
Buchholz has had command of his secondary pitches since returning but had trouble locating his fastball at times. He pitched three innings in Wednesday’s intrasquad game at Fenway Park and that was another step forward.
“Everything is pretty much back to normal. Been that way since I started the rehab,” Buchholz said. “I’ve gotten back into the normal five-day swing of things. There’s not anything that I have to alter to get through or anything. I feel pretty much at home.”
Farrell compared Buchholz with David Ortiz, who started the season on the disabled list with a sore right Achilles’ tendon. In both cases, the Red Sox had to be patient knowing there would be a reward in the end.
“If health was there, performance should follow and we feel like to varying degrees it has from both guys,” Farrell said. “Clay is getting back to the mound, we felt like if we didn’t rush it and he didn’t suffer another setback, it could give our rotation a huge lift, which it has.”
Ortiz refers to Buchholz as flaco, the Spanish word for skinny.
“El flaco, very exciting, man,” Ortiz said. “I love watching him pitch. He’s one of our starters that always gives us hope when he goes out there. I think we’re just going to try to score some runs for him.”
The Red Sox lost the one playoff game Buchholz appeared in and their season ended. If they win Monday, they would advance to Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park on Saturday against either the Tigers or Athletics. That series is 1-1 and headed to Detroit.
“This is what baseball is all about. Everybody wants to be in this position. If you don’t you’re in the wrong sport,” Buchholz said. “I’m excited, a little anxious to get it started.
“I’m going to just try to do the same thing as I’ve done all year when I’ve been out there: pitch in the zone, throw strikes, try to get your hitters in the dugout as quick as possible.”