BALTIMORE — That Clay Buchholz would be available to start a game in the first round of the postseason for the Red Sox was hardly a sure thing in late July.
The lingering pain in his shoulder was such that Buchholz sought a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews. The Red Sox demonstrated their level of concern a few days later by making a trade for Jake Peavy, the top starter on the market.
"Nothing was guaranteed," Buchholz said.
Now, two months later, Buchholz is ready to play what he hopes will be a leading role in October. The righthander pitched seven effective innings against the Baltimore Orioles in a 12-3 victory on Friday night and came away smiling.
"I'm ready to go," Buchholz said. "It was a little bit of a grind today, I didn't have the best stuff out there. But I feel like everybody's ready to go."
The Sox clinched home field for the first round of the playoffs. Game 1 of the Division Series will be next Friday at Fenway Park. The magic number to clinch the best record in the American League and home-field advantage throughout the postseason is 1, as Oakland defeated Seattle to keep pace.
At 97-63, the Red Sox have their most wins since the 2004 team won 98 games.
The Sox had 16 hits off four Baltimore pitchers, six for extra bases. Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, and David Ortiz homered. Stephen Drew had two hits and drove in three runs.
On a night of offense, Buchholz was the focus within the Red Sox dugout. He allowed three runs on seven hits and struck out four without a walk. Buchholz's 113 pitches were his most since late May.
"I thought Clay went out and pitched with a comfortable effort level," manager John Farrell said. "It wasn't his most overpowering, but he had to pitch . . . It was more of the progression for him."
There were questions. Buchholz allowed home runs by Adam Jones and Chris Davis, matching the number he had allowed in his first 15 starts. He also showed little life on his fastball.
Buchholz topped out at 92 miles per hour and sat at 89-90 over the course of his outing. He relied heavily on off-speed and breaking pitches. In his previous start, Buchholz was comfortably at 93-94.
"He pitched with what he felt he had tonight," Farrell said.
Buchholz pinned the difference on a change in his routine. He usually plays catch and throws a dozen pitches off the mound the day before his start. But the Red Sox did not arrive at their hotel in Baltimore until close to 6 a.m. on Thursday and the Orioles had a game that night at Camden Yards.
Baltimore offered the use of its bullpen in the morning. Buchholz elected to sleep in instead and was still tired a day later.
"My body felt a little lethargic. Felt it when I woke up that it might be a grinding outing for me," Buchholz said.
That Buchholz was able to complete seven innings outweighed any concern about his velocity.
"He didn't try to overthrow because he felt fatigued," Farrell said. "I think it's a sign of maturity more than anything and not anything physically restricting him. He's answered the physical question for sure."
Buchholz has thrown 24 innings and allowed five earned runs in four starts since returning from a three-month stint on the disabled list. The Sox have not announced their postseason rotation, but he is lined up to pitch one of the first three games.
"It's all about command and control and location of each pitch," Buchholz said. "It was going really good before I got hurt. Said all along that I'm not really asking to get back to that point but somewhere close.
"I think the last four times out I've gotten better at one facet of the game. It starts with command of all my pitches and slowly but surely it's getting there."
Buchholz finished the regular season 12-1 with a 1.74 earned run average over 16 starts. That the Red Sox could start him in Game 3 speaks to the depth of their rotation.
"It's always about pitching and Clay is one of our best guys. Getting him back and getting his pitch count up is big for us," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "We didn't know how he would feel, but he's back and he looks good."
Orioles starter Scott Feldman (5-6) allowed eight runs, five in the first inning. Nava's three-run homer was the big blow.
Ortiz's home run, a three-run shot in the eighth inning, came off rookie lefthander Mike Belfiore, a former Boston College player making his major league debut.
Belfiore fell behind, 2 and 1, before throwing a fastball that Ortiz took the other way and lined over the wall in left field.
"Welcome to the big leagues," Ortiz said with a chuckle. "I heard he's from Boston. Damn. My boy, he already knows."
Ortiz has 30 home runs and 103 RBIs. He joined Ted Williams as the only Red Sox players with seven seasons with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs. The home run also was the 431st for Ortiz, tying him with Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. for 45th place all time.
"The Iron Man, that's something special," Ortiz said. "You keep on mentioning names and nothing but greater comes out. Mad respect."