ST. PETERSBURG -- Before he was forced out of the game with lower back tightness, Clay Buchholz put his team in position to win. And the Red Sox did just that, completing one of their most impressive road trips in recent memory by staving off the Rays, 4-2, on Thursday night at Tropicana Field.
Matched up with another front-line starter in David Price, Buchholz outpitched his counterpart and would have outlasted him if not for his balky back.
After five strong innings -- two hits, one run, five strikeouts and 81 pitches -- Buchholz departed.
"Nagging back that has been the same since last year," Buchholz said. "I just felt like I was in a better position tonight to come out a little early and not put any more stress on my body than I had to. The way we're playing right now, nobody wants to go on the DL. That was my first thought -- try to get through five innings with it and give it to the bullpen. Josh [Beckett] pitched his game yesterday, and the bullpen had a day of rest. That was my thought process with it."
Price also went five innings, but his stint was shortened not due to injury, but because of the way the Red Sox grinded him out. The big lefty threw 106 pitches, giving up five hits and three runs while walking five.
For the Red Sox, the victory capped an all-American League East 8-1 road trip, which included three-game sweeps at the first two destinations (New York and Toronto) before taking two out of three at the Trop.
It was Boston's best road trip of at least nine games since July 29-Aug. 7, 1977, when it went 9-0.
"It was a good road trip," said first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. "We started the road trip in second place and finished it in first place. Any time you can do that, that's a good thing."
Once Buchholz left, the bullpen took it home.
Alfredo Aceves worked around a solo shot by Casey Kotchman in the sixth, firing 1 2/3 frames. Daniel Bard was perfect for 1 1/3 innings.
After Gonzalez provided insurance with a screaming liner for a solo homer in the top of the ninth, Jonathan Papelbon entered.
After five days of rest, Papelbon looked rusty at the start, giving up a double to Kotchman and an infield single to B.J. Upton. But Papelbon mowed down the next three batters, finishing the road trip by punching out Sean Rodriguez for save No. 13 on the season.
"It was tough for me for the simple fact it had been six days since I pitched," Papelbon said. "I definitely had some rust. I had to shake off the first couple of batters that put me in that situation with my back up against the wall. I was kind of able to get into my element. I don't think anybody realizes how tough it is for a guy in my position to have [five] days off and pitch. I think that's pretty much what it boiled down to tonight."
Shortstop Jed Lowrie had an even shorter night than Buchholz, leaving in the bottom of the first after tweaking his left shoulder on a strikeout in the top of the inning. Lowrie has been playing with discomfort in his shoulder since a May 29 collision with teammate Carl Crawford.
Lowrie thinks he suffered a subluxation, which is when the shoulder slips out of its socket but then immediately goes back into place. He will be examined back in Boston on Friday, when the Red Sox open a three-game series at Fenway against the Brewers in possession of a 41-27 record, the best in the AL.
"It was a great road trip," said third baseman Kevin Youkilis. "We did a lot of things well and finished out games. Offensively, we did real well in Toronto and New York. The biggest thing is just finishing out games and doing the little things to win ballgames is always the key."
Continuing a recent trend, the Red Sox took the lead early. After a walk by Dustin Pedroia with one out in the first, Gonzalez cranked a double into the right-field corner, putting runners at second and third. Youkilis was drilled to load the bases, and warnings were issued to both sides.
"There was a base open and he doesn't really have that bad of command a lot of times," Youkilis said. "I'm more mad because it was pretty high. I get hit a ton of times. It's not a big deal. I don't like when balls are up there high."
It wasn't clear why the warning was issued, but one theory was that it had something to do with Youkilis stepping on Rays first baseman Kotchman two days earlier.
"I don't understand the Kotchman thing," Youkilis said. "I don't know. I think that was an accident, running and lunging out and my foot came up over. I didn't step on him. My toe, if you watch in very slow mo, my toe was up pointed like I usually run. I've been stepped on at first base and stuff like that and haven't retaliated against anyone."
Price was clearly having command issues, as he walked David Ortiz to force in a run. The lefty threw 33 pitches in the inning, but he gave up just the one run.
Price wasn't so lucky in the second. With one out, Jarrod Saltalamacchia ripped a double to right and Darnell McDonald smoked a single up the middle to bring him in. Up next was Pedroia, and he smashed an RBI double to right to make it 3-0.
"I walked five, so that's tough," said Price. "I didn't command the zone at all with any pitch. You're not going to get by [like that], especially against a team like Boston."