ST. PETERSBURG -- Clay Buchholz's first start back from the disabled list went about as well as the Red Sox could have hoped through six innings Saturday night. He had held the Rays to two runs and felt good and strong as he got that deep on only 79 pitches.
Then came the seventh inning.
Buchholz got himself into trouble by putting runners on base, and the bullpen couldn't bail him out. The Rays took advantage of the opportunity, grabbing the lead in a hitless, two-run seventh and going on to beat the Red Sox, 5-3, before a crowd of 27,311 at Tropicana Field.
"Buchholz was really good. He was really good until right at the end there," Boston manager Bobby Valentine said. "I had questions about sending him out [in the seventh], but he didn't have many pitches and he said he hadn't even broken a sweat yet. Then a walk and a hit batter later, you know. But he was very good."
The right-hander issued a leadoff walk to Luke Scott and hit Jeff Keppinger after racking up eight strikeouts in six innings. Both runners moved into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt by Desmond Jennings, and that brought an end to Buchholz's night.
Matt Albers came in and intentionally walked pinch-hitter Hideki Matsui to load the bases -- Valentine said he'd rather face a younger hitter than "a guy who's made his living driving runs in" -- then walked in the tying run with Jose Lobaton at the plate. Elliot Johnson sent a sacrifice fly into center field to give the Rays a one-run lead.
"I wouldn't have told [Valentine] that I felt fine if I didn't feel fine. Everything felt good," Buchholz said. "Got behind Scott, still trying to find the changeup at that point in the game and I spiked a couple of them. It just is what it is -- can't give free baserunners to a team like this."
Rays left-hander David Price prevented Boston from giving Buchholz his usual run support, striking out eight and allowing three runs -- two earned -- on six hits and three walks.
"That's a tough guy to get," Buchholz said. "If we get ahead of these guys, I need to find a way to keep runners from being on the basepaths and giving them some free outs like we did tonight."
The Red Sox had chances to come back in the eighth and ninth but couldn't capitalize, in part because of their depleted roster. Adrian Gonzalez was unavailable for the second straight night due to back spasms, and Ryan Sweeney was off limits as well with left hamstring tightness. Sweeney said he was ready to pinch-hit late in the game and hopes to be fine for Sunday's series finale.
Jacoby Ellsbury led off the eighth with a double but was left hanging when Pedro Ciriaco, bunting by his own choice, popped up behind the plate. David Ortiz walked, but Cody Ross and Will Middlebrooks flied out to center to end the inning.
With Boston's deficit now at two after a B.J. Upton solo homer, Mike Aviles rapped a leadoff single against Fernando Rodney in the ninth. But the All-Star reliever struck out pinch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia, fanned Brent Lillibridge -- whom Sweeney likely would have hit for, had he been available -- and induced a flyout from Daniel Nava to lock down his 26th save.
The Red Sox missed another chance in the fifth, when Ellsbury loaded the bases with a one-out single. But Ciriaco flied out to Ben Zobrist, who made a strong throw to Jose Molina at the dish. Molina blocked catcher Kelly Shoppach's slide into home plate and completed the inning-ending double play.
"It's Molina putting his body on the line for his team," Price said. "That's awesome. Zo couldn't have made a better throw. It probably helped us that Shoppach was at third. He's probably one of the slower guys on their team as well. It worked out well for us."
"Kind of frustrating all the way around," said Valentine. "It's hard to be frustrated when you're facing David Price. We had some ducks on the pond, and he kept us at bay in the eighth inning there. We had a couple more on and then just misfired a little."
Yet the Red Sox had capitalized on some earlier mistakes by Price and Molina, and that's why Buchholz was in line for a win heading into the seventh.
In the fourth, Middlebrooks crushed a two-run shot off Price. The rookie slugger fell behind 0-2, then deposited a fastball into the left-center-field stands for his 11th homer of the season.
Ross drew a one-out walk in the sixth, took second on a passed ball and moved to third on Middlebrooks' groundout. With Aviles at the plate, Ross faked toward home, leaving plenty of distance between himself and third base. Price quickly turned and threw, but his toss was well over Keppinger's glove and rolled toward the wall, allowing Ross to get up and put Boston ahead.
"It's a play where you're trying to get him to balk. He stepped off like he was supposed to, and I got caught in a bad spot," Ross said. "Luckily he threw it away, and it scored a big run for us."