ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- After a three month absence, the Red Sox will welcome Clay Buchholz back to the mound Tuesday night at Tropicana Field.
That, of course, is a positive development for the Red Sox. When Buchholz went down with a shoulder ailment in early June, was undefeated with an ERA of 1.71. Had he remained healthy, there was a decent chance that he would have started the All-Star Game for the American League.
Now, getting Buchholz back with just less than three weeks to go in the regular season is like a bonus for a team that has the best record in the league and one which holds a comfortable 7 1/2 games over second-place Tampa Bay.
Whatever the Red Sox get from Buchholz -- Tuesday night, over what looks to be four regular season starts, and possibly, in October -- will be viewed in context.
But the Sox aren't nearly as desperate for Buchholz to contribute as they were, say, six weeks ago.
At the All-Star break, Jon Lester was in the midst of a serious downturn in performance and the Sox had yet to obtain Jake Peavy as insurance for their rotation.
Now, things are much different.
Though Lester didn't get a win in the series finale Sunday at Yankee Stadium, he pitched well, allowing three runs in eight innings. Robinson's Cano bases-loaded double, which scored two runs and gave the Yankees a lead, came only after two of the softest singles possible filled the bases.
Since getting some extra rest coming out of the All-Star break, Lester looks like a different pitcher. In those 10 starts, he's 5-2 with a 2.53 ERA.
In mid-season, it looked like the Sox needed Buchholz back to serve as the team's No. 1 starter in the post-season. At the time, Lester was trending in the wrong direction, Peavy wasn't here and Felix Doubront, though in the middle of a 16-game stretch in which he didn't allow more than three earned runs in any one outing, seemed like something of a gamble.
That left only John Lackey as the logical choice to open a series if Buchholz didn't return in time.
With the finish line in sight, however, much has changed. It seems a given that, barring some unforseen circumstance, Lester will pitch the team's first post-season game since 2009.
Peavy, too, provides depth and experience. In seven starts since he was acquired on July 30, Peavy is 3-1 with a 3.55 ERA. And though Lackey suffered through his worst start in months Saturday, he's been consistently excellent almost from the start of the season.
Buchholz will be kept to a pitch count of about 75 pitches or so Tuesday, which should translate into five innings, possibly six. That limit will be nudged upward in the next start at increments of 10-15 pitches, meaning it might take until his final scheduled start of the season before Buchholz goes without any restrictions.
There's a chance that, in that span, he can again show the dominance he displayed in the first two months of the season. Such a development would be a boost for the Sox.
But thanks to the performance of Lester, Lackey and Peavy, they're no longer desperate for Buchholz. If he returns to form, fine. If he doesn't, the Red Sox have managed to thrive without him.