MIAMI -- It may not have been how the Red Sox planned it, but two-and-a-half months into the season, Clay Buchholz is the team's best starting pitcher.
Such a notion would have been laughable only a few weeks ago, when Buchholz owned an ERA north of 8.00. But over the last four turns through the rotation, Buchholz has made the convincing case.
Tuesday night, with little backing and even less margin for error, Buchholz performed brilliantly, limiting the Miami Marlins to a single run over seven innings.
And while Buchholz may have had to pitch out of trouble late in the game, the key may well have come in the first inning.
For the second night in a row, Miami shortstop Jose Reyes began the game with a triple to right field and stood on third base, representing an almost inevitable 1-0 lead for the Marlins.
But Buchholz conceded nothing. He proceeded to strike out the next three hitters -- Omar Infante, Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton -- each of one of them swinging at a third strike.
It was an impressive display of might by Buchholz, who would go on to rack up nine strikeouts, a 2012 high.
It also seemed a declaration of sorts. Knowing how little the Sox offense had provided of late -- it had averaged a paltry 3.1 runs per game over the previous eight games, seven of them losses -- Buchholz would not permit the opposition to take so much as a one-run, first-inning lead.
"I thought it was real big,'' said Bobby Valentine afterward. "It was a confidence builder for Buchholz and it probably took a little bit out of them. It's not like our offense came alive, but at least we knew we had a chance.''
"It was big,'' said Buchholz of his escape. "It was a pretty tough situation.''
Buchholz barely resembles the same pitcher of his first seven or eight starts this season. In April and through the first few weeks of May, Buchholz appeared tentative on the mound, perhaps not entirely convinced that the stress fracture in his lower back, which had robbed him of the final half of last season, had not fully healed.
"The first few weeks were pretty tough,'' he acknowledged Tuesday night. "I was down. I think anybody would be down. No one wants to give up runs and put their team in a losing situation. I had to find a way to get past that, and battle through it. I knew that I had done it before, so it wasn't going to not happen for me; it was just going to take a little bit of time coming off the injury.''
The turnaround has been fueled by an adjustment and a discovery. Buchholz changed the grip on his changeup a handful of starts back and it has gradually returned to being the weapon it was when he emerged in 2010 as one of the game's most promising starters.
But before the changeup returned, Buchholz stumbled upon another option with the help of teammate Josh Beckett, who suggested Buchholz experiment with a split-finger fastball.
"It's a pitch that I can, when my real changeup isn't there, puts another pitch in the hitter's mind,'' said Buchholz. "It's been a good pitch when I've thrown it. It's still new, I'm still working on it. But it's been a big pitch a few times for me.''
Mostly, Buchholz has been big for the Red Sox for the past month. While Jon Lester shows a continuing tendency to give back leads and Beckett can't seem to pitch well enough to win close games -- four wins in a dozen starts -- Buchholz, reagrdless of where he sits within the rotation, is the team's true No. 1.