ST. PETERSBURG -- When Clay Buchholz pitched his last game for the Red Sox more than three months ago, his team had a 38-25 record and a mere 1 1/2-game lead in the American League East.
On Tuesday, Buchholz will make his anticipated return at Tropicana Field for a club that, at 87-58, holds a commanding 7 1/2-game lead in the division with just 17 regular-season games left.
In other words, the Red Sox survived quite nicely without a man who was having a Cy Young Award-caliber season (9-0, 1.71 ERA in 12 starts) at the time of his injury.
This isn't to minimize how important Buchholz is to the Red Sox going forward. In fact, it all bodes quite nicely for the pitcher and his team.
Buchholz, who was out with a right bursa sac strain, can come back without the weight of Red Sox Nation on him. From Jon Lester to John Lackey to the newly acquired Jake Peavy, the rotation has more than stepped up over these last few weeks.
And this gives Buchholz time to simply focus on building back his arm strength and rediscovering his pitching rhythm over his final four regular-season starts.
"I guess you don't have to put too much pressure on yourself," said Buchholz. "We've got a little bit of a cushion. But I've been through it before where that disappears really quickly. Obviously we still want to come out and win games. That's my goal in my mind, to come back and be out there and try to help the team win."
However, when Buchholz made that point in reference to the massive collapse the Red Sox had in 2011, he actually made a telling statement about how much better shape his team is in two years later.
In '11, Buchholz suffered a back injury that ultimately ended his season on June 16. That particular Boston team was ill-equipped to handle a significant injury.
Josh Beckett and Lester fell apart down the stretch that year, and fellow rotation members Lackey (pitching with a damaged elbow at the time), Tim Wakefield (soon to be retired) and Erik Bedard (low-impact trade acquisition) couldn't do anything to rescue a fading team.
Instead of plummeting to start September like that Red Sox team, this one has started the final month playing its most inspired baseball of the season.
Buchholz can't wait to jump back in.
"We've got a great group of guys," Buchholz said. "From Day 1 of Spring Training, everyone knew this team was special. Everyone had each other's back. That's what makes good teams great. It's fun to come to the park and hang out with the guys on an everyday basis. Everybody has that same common goal in mind, and that's to win games, get to the postseason and ultimately the World Series."
Just as Buchholz comes back to action, the Red Sox are coming to grips with the fact they will be without another key member for at least a couple of weeks. Jacoby Ellsbury, the invaluable leadoff man and center fielder, has a compression fracture in his right foot.
But as the Red Sox hoped they were demonstrating when Buchholz missed time, championship-caliber teams can overcome injuries.
"We'll have to pick up the slack," said Dustin Pedroia. "He's a huge part of our lineup and team. Guys are going to have to step up, and they will."
One of those players who can step up is Buchholz.
"As of right now, I hopefully have four starts left in the season," Buchholz said. "The goal for those is to keep winning and get ready for the starts in October. That's when everything really matters. We've got to get there first. But I want to make sure I'm ready for that. That's the only goal I have in my head right now, is to be ready."
Given the way Buchholz pitched earlier in the year, it would be foolish to expect he could perform at that level right out of the gate. Nor do the Red Sox expect him to.
"Our goal going through the remainder of the month will be not only to stretch him out, but to see if there's a certain dependability we'll get from him," said manager John Farrell. "We really can't expect that he'd come back and pitch to the form that led him to have a 1.71 ERA and the record that he has. But starting on Tuesday, we're hopeful that we get a guy that's close to what he was prior to the injury, and it would be an additional lift to this rotation."
Buchholz is aware enough of public perception that he knows there was a faction of critics who wondered if he was taking too long to return from his injury.
But he was smart enough not to let that buzz influence his recovery time. So now Buchholz comes back at a time when he feels completely ready.
"Mentally I'm ready. I think that's what everyone was questioning -- mental toughness and everything," said Buchholz. "But I know my body better than everybody else does. I'm comfortable pitching now. There's nothing wrong that's come up."
The one mental hurdle Buchholz faced during his recovery was wondering if his body would even allow him to pitch again this season. The doubt crept in after a bullpen session in Oakland the day before the All-Star break.
"At a certain point, yeah. I didn't really think I'd be able to throw or let it go again [this season]," Buchholz said. "That's what I was feeling. That feeling's gone, and I feel good now."
The turning point was a visit to Florida with noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, who outlined every step of the recovery for Buchholz.
In fact, that timetable has gone precisely as Andrews predicted.
And if you want to look at the silver lining in Buchholz's prolonged absence, it's the fact he figures to be fresh at a time a lot of players around the game are wearing down.
"Nobody looks at it that way, but my body should definitely feel a lot better than everybody else's in the league," Buchholz said. "I haven't thrown nearly as much. Things happen for a reason. I feel good, ready to go. It stinks that I haven't gotten to battle with the guys the last couple of months, but hopefully everything plays out the way we want it to and I can help these guys win."
For Buchholz, his return starts against an ace lefty in David Price and a Rays team that is coming off a rough West Coast road trip, and therefore desperate to win a game.
It will be a challenging environment for Buchholz to return in. However, nobody is expecting him to go toe to toe with Price in his first start back. Buchholz won't be on the mound long enough for that to happen.
"I think 75 to 80 pitches is probably a reasonable number of pitches to throw," Farrell said. "We know there will be an increase in intensity coming off his rehab starts. We'll look to make that the first step back."