ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Red Sox traded away nearly their entire rotation in July, making deals that sent Felix Doubront, John Lackey, Jon Lester, and Jake Peavy out of Boston.
The only veteran who remained when the deadline passed was Clay Buchholz, the most talented — and most infuriating — of the bunch.
The Red Sox have Buchholz signed through 2015 and hold reasonable options on him for the two seasons after that. They also have a firm belief that his talent can overcome his maddening inconsistency and inability to stay healthy.
Sunday was an example of that faith in action. Buchholz pitched one of the best games of his career in a 3-0 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays. He allowed three hits and struck out six without a walk.
It was the second shutout this season for Buchholz and the sixth of his career. He threw 98 pitches, 69 for strikes.
Buchholz went to a three-ball count four times, all after the sixth inning once the Red Sox had a lead. Only one Tampa Bay runner advanced beyond first base.
“You don’t always go out there with four or five pitches working. Whenever you do you’ve got to make the best of it,” Buchholz said.
Buchholz was remarkably efficient. He threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of 29 batters, never threw more than 14 pitches in an inning, and retired the final 12 Rays in order.
“Fastball command to both sides of the plate was probably the best ever maybe,” Buchholz said. “Just having the ball move crisscross, both corners, cutter and sinker — I’ve been able to do that before, but today the execution of it was a lot better.”
It was only the eighth time this season a pitcher threw a shutout with fewer than 100 pitches.
“We ran into a really, really good pitching performance. Very untimely,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “He’d have done that to a lot of groups today. A lot. He’d have beat up a lot of folks today with that stuff.
“I know he’d been hurt, he gets well, and all of a sudden he’s looking like he did a couple years ago.”
Buchholz threw his sinker inside against lefthanded hitters then spotted it away against righthanders. That helped lead to his getting 12 outs on the ground.
Once his fastball was established, Buchholz broke out his curveball and cutter in the fifth inning and used those pitches to keep the hitters off balance the third time they saw him.
“He was in complete command for nine innings. Outstanding effort,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “He’s got such an ability to manipulate the baseball with some late action.”
Buchholz took a shutout into the ninth inning of his last start but faltered against the Toronto Blue Jays and allowed three runs. This time Farrell had closer Koji Uehara warmed up in case a batter reached, but none did.
“He was perfect today,” rookie catcher Christian Vazquez said. “He’s easy. He was painting every pitch.”
It was almost a copy of Buchholz’s three-hit shutout of the Houston Astros on July 13. Buchholz struck out 12 in that game without a walk and threw 109 pitches.
The mystery is how can a pitcher so talented be 6-8 with a 5.40 earned run average?
Buchholz was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA through 12 starts last season when shoulder soreness landed him on the disabled list for three months. He pitched well, if cautiously, after returning but has not been the same this season.
By late May, when his ERA swelled to 7.02, the Sox trumped up a knee injury so Buchholz could go on the disabled for a month and work on the side.
He has a 4.50 ERA since, but that’s not close to what it should be.
“I don’t feel any different physically. That was the one thing I could look back at this year, it had nothing to do with me physically,” Buchholz said. “It was more just things didn’t happen for me the way I planned for them to happen and the way I wanted them to happen.
“It’s tough to go through that. But at the same time, two starts later you can go out and have your stuff back. You have to stay on an even keel.”
Buchholz decided to stop worrying about his inflated ERA midway through the season and just pitch as well as he could on his day.
“That’s worked out,” he said.
The Red Sox took a 1-0 lead against Alex Cobb in the third inning. Xander Bogaerts singled and went to third on an errant pickoff throw. Vazquez then singled him in.
Brock Holt singled and stole second in the fifth inning. He scored on a single by Mookie Betts.
With Dustin Pedroia out of the lineup with a concussion, Betts batted second and was 2 for 4.
Betts doubled off Joel Peralta in the eighth inning and scored on an opposite-field single by David Ortiz.
Cobb (9-7) allowed two runs, one earned, over 6⅓ innings. He struck out six and walked one.
The Sox are 4-2 on their road trip and have taken two of three from the Rays with the series finale on Monday.