SAN DIEGO — Most Red Sox fans wanted Clay Buchholz traded, released, or strapped to the front of the next train leaving South Station in July. Even Buchholz had started to wonder if he needed to start his career over somewhere else.
Now, with the season on the line, Buchholz just may be one of the most important players on the roster.
The resurrected righthander pitched into the seventh inning on Tuesday night, helping lift the Red Sox to a much-needed 5-1 victory against the San Diego Padres.
With the Blue Jays again falling to the Yankees, the Sox are tied for first place in the American League East with 24 games to go. The Baltimore Orioles are one game behind.
In his first start since Aug. 23, Buchholz allowed one run on eight hits and struck out six without a walk. He has a 2.31 earned run average in his last four starts, with the Sox winning three of those games.
Buchholz again filled in admirably for injured All-Star Steven Wright, a job he could have for the remainder of the season given the knuckleballer’s uncertain status.
“It was fun to watch,” Wright said. “Everybody needs to pick up some slack and he’s picking up mine.”
Buchholz navigated through 6⅔ innings on 87 pitches. The Red Sox fans who have taken over Petco Park the last two games gave Buchholz a standing ovation when he left the mound in the seventh inning.
“Haven’t had one of those in a while,” he said. “Good times, bad times, I still feel like I can pitch and help this team out.”
Buchholz is 3-1 with a 2.95 ERA since the All-Star break thanks to a series of physical adjustments. The most obvious has been pitching exclusively from the stretch, something he found comfort with after being sent to the bullpen.
Buchholz also raised the angle of his release point after noticing on video that his arm had dropped in recent years. Data provided by director of pitching development Brian Bannister confirmed that and they worked to fix it.
Now Buchholz’s pitches have more vertical movement, which was the intent all along.
“It’s been a team effort, it hasn’t just been me with my stuff,” Buchholz said. “There’s a lot of people around us that are available and can help us. Regardless of how long you’ve been in the league, things can sneak up on you and you might not know the reason why. You need some guidance sometimes.”
Sox manager John Farrell, who first worked with Buchholz as a pitching coach in 2007, called it “very rare” for a pitcher to flourish while bouncing in and out of the rotation.
“He’s pitching his best baseball of this year at the right time for us,” Farrell said. “You can’t give Clay enough credit. . . . I’m very proud of him. Proud of the resiliency he has shown.”
San Diego’s starter, an unaccomplished righthander named Paul Clemens, held the Red Sox scoreless over the first three innings. To that point they had scored one run over a stretch of 21 innings dating back to Sunday in Oakland and were hitless in 18 consecutive at-bats with runners in scoring position.
The Sox scored five runs on six hits in the two innings that followed, finally ending their drought.
Sandy Leon led off the fourth inning by dropping a bunt down the third-base line to beat a defensive shift. According to Baseball-Reference.com, it was the first bunt hit of his career.
Jackie Bradley Jr. then drove a high fastball deep into the stands in right field for his 23rd home run. Chris Young followed with a line drive that struck the top of the fence in left field and bounced over for his second home run in as many days. He has eight on the season.
“I came out of the box thinking it was going to hit the wall,” said Young, who expected he would be held to a single.
Singles by Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Hanley Ramirez gave the Red Sox another run in the fifth inning. That drove Clemens from the game.
Facing Jose Dominguez, Leon sent a broken-bat flare to right field that was caught by Oswaldo Arcia.
Arcia was distracted by Ramirez and Betts took third base.
Dominguez fell behind Bradley and the Padres intentionally walked him. When Young grounded to third base, the Padres were not able to turn the double play and Betts scored.
As the Red Sox resuscitated their offense, Buchholz held the Padres down.
He stranded two runners in the first again and again in the third. The Padres did not score until Ryan Schimpf homered leading off the fourth inning.
Buchholz retired nine of the next 10 batters he faced.
Arcia singled to start the seventh inning and went to third on a single to right field by Luis Sardinas that was just out of the reach of Dustin Pedroia.
Buchholz struck out pinch hitter John Jay and then Travis Jankowski. Matt Barnes came in and struck out Wil Myers swinging at a curveball. Fernando Abad and Joe Kelly finished off the final two innings.