Clay Buchholz making timely return

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It will be 94 days since Clay Buchholz last pitched in the big leagues.

"Longest 94 days of my career? Yeah, probably so," Buchholz said Sunday. "It ranks right up there, with the back stuff. But I'm over it. Now I start pitching again. It's been awhile."

Since Buchholz went down, the lowest earned run average by an American League pitcher with at least 12 starts is the 2.48 ERA posted by the New York Yankees' Ivan Nova.

That's almost a full percentage point higher than the 1.71 ERA Buchholz had at the time he was shut down with shoulder bursitis on June 8.

Since Buchholz last pitched, Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers, Chris Tillman of the Baltimore Orioles and C.J. Wilson of the Los Angeles Angels have won 11 games apiece, and Mark Buehrle of the Toronto Blue Jays has won nine. They are the only American League pitchers with at least as many wins as Buchholz had at the time he went on the DL, and they have all had 16 starts in that time. Buchholz had nine wins in just 12 starts, and did not lose a decision. No pitcher with at least nine decisions has gone unbeaten in the interim.

Clearly, Buchholz was having a special season when it was so rudely interrupted, and now the Boston Red Sox are eager to discover what they might expect upon its resumption. Manager John Farrell urges some recognition that after so much time off and essentially having to repeat the process of building up arm strength the way he did in spring training, Buchholz should be given some breathing room.

"We really can't expect him to come back and pitch to the form that led him to be a 1.7 ERA and the record that he has," Farrell said Sunday, when he announced Buchholz's return to the rotation Tuesday to face the Tampa Bay Rays. "But starting on Tuesday, if that's the day he will begin with, we're hopeful we get a guy that's close to what he was prior to the injury and certainly will be an additional lift to this rotation."

One of the best parts of the story, from Buchholz's perspective, is how well the rotation survived his absence. At the time he went down, the starters had posted a 28-18 record in 63 starts, with a 3.61 ERA. In his absence, their record is 31-22 with a 4.18 ERA.

Curt Schilling is fond of saying at the beginning of a season that the team that stays healthiest, especially the starting pitchers, will win. All five members of the Tigers' rotation have made 25 starts or more, and they lead the AL Central. The Athletics have five starters who have made 24 starts or more, and they lead the AL West. The Rays have only two starters who have made as many as 24 starts, and they're 7½ games behind the Red Sox in the AL East entering their three-game series with Boston, beginning Tuesday night.

Jon Lester, John Lackey, Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront all have made 26 or more starts this season, and have not missed a start since Buchholz went down.

"That's awesome," Buchholz said. "That's one of the reasons I was able to not necessarily take my time but wait until it was the right time to start throwing, rather than press to come back. That was big."

Farrell concurs. "The health is probably the biggest thing," he said. "To think that we haven't missed starts other than Clay is pretty remarkable when you consider the number of other relievers we've had to bring through because of injury. Not to be disrespectful or take anything away from guys in the bullpen, but holes in the rotation are much more difficult to fill."

Buchholz originally disclosed he felt discomfort after a start in Chicago on May 22, the famous "little baby Buchholz slept on me funny" game. He came back 11 days later to face the Yankees in a rain-shortened game June 2, then pitched once more, against the Angels, before shutting it down. The Sox have been vague about what exactly is wrong with Buchholz's shoulder. Bursitis, which is inflammation of the bursa sac, is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. But how the Red Sox decided to proceed with their 28-year-old right-hander changed after he went to see orthopedist James Andrews.

"He told me that if I got throwing off the mound before it was fully healed, I wouldn't be back for the rest of the season, and I'd possibly further injure myself," Buchholz said Sunday. "He told me it was going to be four weeks 'til I got off the mound throwing to a batter, and he was right on point."

It was reassuring, Buchholz said, to learn that there was no significant structural damage in his shoulder.

"Just knowing there was nothing messed up in my shoulder, just inflammation and stuff, and to protect me by not throwing before I was better, meant I couldn't aggravate what I had," he said.

And with the Red Sox closing in on a division title and their first trip back to the playoffs since 2009, Buchholz's return could not be better timed. Farrell said the club decided to use this time to skip Felix Doubront in the rotation, to give him a breather, with Doubront having a 6.60 ERA in his past six starts.

"I have no problem with that," Doubront said Sunday.

How good can Buchholz be?

"I should be better now, I would think," he said. "I'm going to try to get back to where I was at."

The results may not be as spectacular, but what is most reassuring to Buchholz is that his shoulder now feels the best it has all season.

"I've thrown throughout the first half of the season with it," he said. "I feel fine now. It feels completely different than it did."