BOSTON -- One night later, the clubhouse scrubbed clean of a champion's spills, the harvest moon obscured by clouds, and the bats muffled by Mark Buehrle, the Boston Red Sox did something Saturday night that did not happen during their run-up to a division title.
They sent Clay Buchholz home with a loss.
The Red Sox right-hander, who had won all 11 of his previous decisions in 2013, including the two starts he had made since coming off the disabled list, was the losing pitcher in Saturday night's 4-2 defeat against the Toronto Blue Jays before a crowd of 37,569 in Fenway Park. The loss reduced Boston's advantage over Oakland for the best overall record in the league -- and home-field advantage in the American League Championship Series -- to 1½ games. The Red Sox have six games left, the Oakland Athletics seven.
The easy thing would be to blame a possible hangover effect caused by a long night of celebrating, which indeed took place on the basement level of Game On, the watering hole hard by the Green Monster. But that does a disservice to Buehrle, the Blue Jays lefty who held the Sox to five hits in six innings while going over the 200-inning mark for the 13th straight season, the longest active streak in the majors.
Granted, Buehrle was facing a Sox lineup missing a few of the usual suspects. Dustin Pedroia was given a night off, only the second time in 156 games he hasn't started at second base. John McDonald, a native of Connecticut and a resident of Scituate, Mass., started in his place. Will Middlebrooks, meanwhile, made his first career start at first base, Mike Napoli given a breather, while backup catcher David Ross started in place of Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
But while the Sox could mount little offense Saturday, they still played with a sense of some urgency, knowing that Oakland had already won and was closing in on them for the best overall record in the league.
Ross threw out all three Blue Jays baserunners who attempted to steal against him, one throw stronger than the one preceding it.
McDonald, playing in short right field as part of a defensive shift, made a terrific backhanded grab of Adam Lind's one-hop smash, spun and threw out Lind in the second. An inning later, shortstop Stephen Drew made an all-out dive to spear J.P. Arencibia's ground ball up the middle, and threw out the Jays' catcher. Drew also had two hits, scoring Boston's first run of the night in the sixth, and hit two other balls to the track that were caught.
The Sox scored their second run without the benefit of a hit in the seventh against Buehrle's successor, Dustin McGowan, when Xander Bogaerts reached on a two-base error by third baseman Brett Lawrie, took third on a wild pitch, and scored on Ross's grounder to short.
Still, that wasn't enough for the Sox to overcome the three-spot the Jays hung on Buchholz with two out in the fourth. That rally was aided and abetted by some sloppy defense, including the pitcher's wild pickoff attempt, his second in two starts, a double pump by Bogaerts on Lawrie's infield hit, and Shane Victorino's inability to haul in Lind's RBI double.
The inning began with a single by Jose Reyes, the first hit allowed by Buchholz after going nine-up, nine-down, but Ross nailed him stealing, at least in the eyes of second-base umpire Tony Randazzo. Munenori Kawasaki tapped out to second, and Buchholz was headed to the dugout when Lawrie rolled to third. But Lawrie beat Bogaerts' throw to first, and Adam Lind brought him home when he doubled off the glove of Victorino in center.
Moises Sierra followed with a base hit to left, and Rajai Davis flared a single to left that scored Lind and sent Sierra to third. Buchholz's pickoff attempt then missed connections with Middlebrooks, Sierra scoring.
"I just held onto it too long," Buchholz said of his pickoff attempt. "I was basically just trying to set up a way for Rossy to throw him out. It was just a show move and I just held on to the ball a little bit too long."
That was Buchholz's only rough inning, as he went six innings and threw 106 pitches, which should erase any doubts about his ability to pitch deep into a game in October, assuming he feels fine Sunday.
"I thought he was more crisp than his last time out against New York," manager John Farrell said. "A little better arm strength, a little more consistent power to his fastball. I thought Clay was pretty sharp and pretty crisp for the time he was on the mound.
"He was fighting to go back out in the seventh, but given the progression we were on, that was a comfortable number of pitches thrown tonight. But he feels good physically, he felt like he could have continued on tonight. So as far as Clay is concerned, the stuff that he had, the endurance he showed, a positive night for him."
Drake Britton threw a scoreless seventh, Ryan Dempster came out of the pen for the first time for the Sox and worked a scoreless eighth, but Matt Thornton gave up an RBI single to J.P. Arencibia, who was batting .142 since the break and snapped an 0 for 27 slump with his drive off the wall. Thornton was lifted two batters later after walking Reyes, and he has now put baserunners on in nine of his past 11 appearances, which won't further his candidacy for a postseason roster spot.
Not surprisingly, Pedroia did not remain idle the entire game. He pinch-hit for the first time since 2011 with two out and nobody on in the seventh but struck out, then finished the game at second base.
Despite taking the loss, Buchholz saw the positive, too.
"It's getting up over 100 pitches again and stuff not really losing anything throughout the game," he said. "That's what it's all about, to go out there and giving your team a chance to win. If we could have got out of that one inning with minimum damage, we could have ended up winning the game, but I let it snowball on me a little bit."