Buchholz returns to already strong Red Sox rotation

Clay Buchholz likely will be limited to 75-80 pitches in his first start back. (USATSI)
Clay Buchholz likely will be limited to 75-80 pitches in his first start back. (USATSI)

NEW YORK -- So much has changed for the Red Sox this year.

Has anything been as significant as the huge improvement in the starting rotation?

For the disastrous final month of 2011 and the even more disastrous 2012 season, Red Sox starters combined for a 5.42 ERA. No team in the American League was worse.

For the first 144 games of 2013, Red Sox starters have a 3.94 ERA. Only three teams in the American League have been better.

And now Clay Buchholz is coming back.

Red Sox manager John Farrell announced Sunday that Buchholz will start Tuesday night at Tampa Bay, returning to the rotation for the first time since June 8. The Red Sox have long expressed confidence that Buchholz would be able to come back from the neck problem that sent him to the disabled list, but as the weeks dragged on, the level of doubt increased.

Even now, Farrell said, Buchholz will likely be limited to 75-80 pitches in his first start back. Farrell admitted that the Red Sox would like to use the remainder of the regular season to find out how effective Buchholz can be, with the postseason quickly approaching.

"Our goal the remainder of the month will be to stretch him out and see about his dependability," Farrell said. "We can't expect a 1.7 ERA and the record he had, but we're hoping to get a guy close to what he was before the injury.

"It would be a big lift."

Buchholz was one of the biggest reasons for the Red Sox's early-season surge. He won each of his first six starts, with a 1.01 ERA, and was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA when he went on the DL.

The Red Sox have survived his absence, in large part because the rest of their rotation has remained healthy and effective. The Red Sox have four pitchers who have made 26 or more starts, and they added Jake Peavy at the July non-waiver trading deadline.

Two Septembers ago, when the Red Sox were collapsing, the rotation fell apart. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester were ineffective, and the Red Sox had so few options that Kyle Weiland and Tim Wakefield continued to make starts, even though neither was effective. Buchholz was also on the disabled list then, but wasn't activated until the final day of the season.

Now, the rotation is strong and deep enough that Farrell waited until after Sunday's 4-3 loss to the Yankees to announce how he would make room for Buchholz. Left-hander Felix Doubront will be skipped, leaving the Red Sox with a rotation of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster to go along with Buchholz.

The depth of the Red Sox rotation has also allowed the Sox to keep rookie Brandon Workman in the bullpen, where he could become a key figure. Sunday, the Red Sox called up Allen Webster, another minor-league starter, in hopes that he could help the bullpen, too.

Middle relief remains an issue for the Red Sox, who lost three late-inning relievers (Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey and Andrew Miller) to season-ending injuries.

But as Farrell said Sunday, it's a little easier to find answers when a team loses a reliever. If the starting rotation falls apart, a team can fall apart with it.

The Red Sox learned that the past two years. This year has been completely different.

And now Clay Buchholz is coming back.

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