ST. LOUIS -- This wasn't Luis Tiant throwing 163 pitches on three days' rest in Game 4 of the 1975 World Series, or Pedro Martinez coming out of the bullpen with a bad shoulder to pitch six innings of no-hit relief in the deciding game of a playoff series against the Indians in 1999, or Big Schill and the Bloody Sock of 2004.
But in a fair-minded world, one willing to recognize the extraordinary high-wire act Clay Buchholz executed for four innings against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday night, it should be enough to take the barbs out of the mouths of the Buchholz bashers who question his desire, his toughness, his willingness to pitch when he is hurting.
"I don't think anyone in this clubhouse feels that way," Jake Peavy said after Buchholz and five of his brothers in arms combined to piece together a 4-2 win over the Cardinals that squared the World Series at two games apiece. "I don't think anyone here questions Clay's toughness as a player. With players, no one questions when a guy's hurt because we've all been hurt and had people question.
"No one's 100 percent," Peavy said. "It's Oct. 27, for God's sake. It's been a grind since Feb. 7. It's like that on the other side too. But that was a gutsy effort tonight."
Buchholz's pitching shoulder has not been right since the first two months of the season. It is why he shut it down for 94 days, and did not return until September. That left little time to build back up to the strength required to deliver the high-intensity innings of October, and he has experienced tightness and fatigue that left him bereft of the weapons that make him so effective. It got to the point in the last week that he entertained real doubts about whether he would be able to pitch. But with some rest and therapy and medication, those doubts slowly ebbed.
"It's the World Series," he said. "If I wouldn't have at least gone out and tried, I don't think I'd ever have been able to forgive myself."
And perhaps neither would anyone else, had Buchholz no-showed on this stage.
"Those are opinions everyone is always going to have," he said about being labeled soft. "I know my body. Earlier in the season I was 9-0. Who doesn't want to pitch when they're 9-0 and have a 1.7 ERA? I promise I wanted to pitch, but it made no sense to go out there."
Given the level of soreness and tightness Buchholz felt for several days last week, no one was sure what he would be taking to the mound Sunday night against the Cardinals.
"I think we were all, wait and see," catcher David Ross said.
The velocity was missing, just as it had been in his last start against the Detroit Tigers in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. But the funny thing about pitching, Peavy said, is that often, the slower you throw, the more the ball moves, and with his mix of cutters, sinkers, changeups and curves, Buchholz was able to survive. Had he left his pitches over the middle of the plate, it would have been batting practice for the Cardinals. But he lived on the edges.
"If you were watching on TV, the ball was really moving," Peavy said. "It missed the barrel for the most part, without even close to the stuff he's used to having. But Clay can manipulate the ball about as well as anybody, so it was moving all over the place."
Buchholz had a quiet first inning, retiring the side in order, but the Cardinals put two on with one out in the second before he caught David Freese looking at a called third strike and Daniel Descalso rolled to short.
Matt Carpenter hit a one-out single to center in the third, took an extra base on a bobble by center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and came around to score on Carlos Beltran's single, but Buchholz coaxed fly outs from the Cardinals' 3-4 hitters, Matt Holliday and Matt Adams.
In the fourth, a couple of walks and the Cardinals threatened again with two outs, but the pitcher was coming up and Buchholz retired Lance Lynn on a liner to right.
"Every time I came into the dugout," Buchholz said, "they were asking, 'How are you/ How are you?' Seriously, I was fine tonight. It was the four days leading up to today that were a little scary."
Manager John Farrell said he probably could have gotten another inning out of Buchholz, who was at 66 pitches, but with the Boston Red Sox struggling so badly to score, he decided to take a shot in the fifth, when the Sox already had scored once and had two on with two outs and Buchholz due to hit. Farrell sent Mike Carp up to the plate.
Buchholz was done, but the machinations were just beginning. "We knew if we had to piece it together, it would be a little creative," Farrell said.
The manager turned first to left-hander Felix Doubront, the starter bounced from the rotation before the playoffs began. Doubront had given the Sox two innings out of the bullpen the night before and hadn't pitched in back-to-back games since 2011. But the Venezuelan lefty has seldom looked fresher. He breezed through the Cardinals on nine pitches in the fifth, then tacked on another 1-2-3 inning in the sixth.
"I hadn't caught Doubie in a long time, so it was a learning process for me," Ross said. "He was painting. His fastball command was off the charts, the best I've seen him pitch."
After two more outs in the seventh, pinch hitter Shane Robinson doubled off Doubront, and Farrell turned to Craig Breslow. Implausibly, he has become the bullpen's weak link, and Carpenter greeted Breslow with an RBI single before Breslow walked Carlos Beltran on four pitches.
Farrell called on Junichi Tazawa to face Holliday, who had doubled in two runs off the Japanese right-hander the night before. This time, Holliday grounded to second, ending the inning and setting the stage for Boston's newest setup man, John Lackey. Lackey, who started Game 2 and is scheduled to pitch Game 6, hadn't pitched in relief since 2004, but had made three relief appearances as a rookie in 2002, when the Angels won the World Series.
"I threw a lot harder back then," he said with a laugh.
"John Lackey, he's got a closer's mentality when he comes into the game as a starter, never mind a reliever," Ross said. "I love his mindset."
And Lackey, who was scheduled to throw a side session anyway, was more than happy to do so with something at stake.
"You got to chip in and get a win," he said. "It doesn't matter what it looks like. We're trying to get to four. That's all that matters.
"I was just excited to help out. Whenever you can get in there and get in a fight with the boys, it's always fun."
The ninth, of course, belonged to Koji Uehara, although this time with an astonishing wrinkle. While Farrell was discussing with his coaches about whether to shift against the dangerous Beltran with Holliday on deck, Uehara picked off pinch runner Kenton Wong.
"While we're having the conversation," Farrell said, "he picks him off. Game over." Now that's what you call great managing, someone said to Farrell, who had endured as rough a night as he's ever had the night before in Game 3.
"Yeah," he said with a smile, "I learned to stay the hell out of the way."
Easy to do, when his players banded together, beginning with Buchholz.
"I've never been with a team that is as single-mindedly as focused to do everything they can do to be world champion," Peavy said. "That's not making any guarantees because you can't do that. "But we're going to die trying."