- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- It doesn't matter which Boston Red Sox player you talk to regarding Major League Baseball's trade deadline on July 31, because they'll all say the same thing.
Sox players will point out that they have the best record in the American League (62-38) and hold a two-game lead in the AL East. The Sox also lead the majors in eight offensive categories.
Monday was a significant day in that regard, as Lester returned from the 15-day disabled list (strained lat) and rejoined the starting rotation. Buchholz (lower-back strain) remains on the DL, but threw an effective 30-pitch bullpen session earlier in the day and is scheduled for another Wednesday.
With Lester back and the possibility of Buchholz being ready for the stretch run, that's almost the equivalent of acquiring top-tier talent at the deadline, a sentiment shared by general manager Theo Epstein.
"There's nobody we can go out and acquire that is going to take the place of Clay Buchholz," Epstein said in an interview late last week on Boston sports radio station WEEI. "If you asked me 'What player to do you want out there on this club in all of baseball?' If I could name one guy to acquire for this team, it would be a healthy Buchholz and I think we're going to have that."
While Buchholz has been frustrated with his injury and is eager to return as soon as possible, he knows having Lester, the club's ace, back in the mix and looking healthy is just as important.
"It's big for us," Buchholz said. "He's the guy we go to, our horse, and when we need a big game he's usually the one who steps up and does it for us. Having him back in the rotation is huge for us. Everybody on the other side of the plate is confident he's going to go out and give this team a chance to win, and that's what everybody expects from him."
Lester's return went as planned, though the Sox ended up losing a tough one to the Royals, 3-1 in 14 innings.
The left-hander worked 5 1/3 innings and allowed one run on seven hits with two walks and six strikeouts. He threw 89 pitches, 55 for strikes, and, more importantly, came out of his first outing since July 5 healthy.
"I felt good," Lester said. "Felt like I haven't pitched in two weeks. But as far as the lat goes, I felt fine. There was no pain, really nothing. I felt normal."
Lester admitted he began to tire toward the end of his outing, but said he'll build off this and should be back in the groove for his next start.
"It shouldn't take me long at all," he said.
"I thought he was very good," manager Terry Francona said. "That was real encouraging. He threw all of his pitches. He stayed in his delivery. He had velocity and movement on the breaking ball. That was nice to see."
Despite the fact that Lester was on a pitch count Monday night, Francona knew it would be a challenge to harness the lefty's competitiveness, saying once that bell rings it's tough to hold Lester back.
It's that mound presence that makes him one of the best pitchers in the majors.
"His stuff and his demeanor are definitely big," Buchholz said. "He's going to give the team a chance to win. Regardless of the stuff he has that day, he's going to go out and compete, and that's what it takes to be a pitcher on this team. Being in Boston and being on the Red Sox, everyone is gunning for you, and that's the way it's been in my time here."
Buchholz's health and production are so important to the Red Sox that Monday's bullpen session was under the watchful eyes of Francona, pitching coach Curt Young and head trainer Mike Reinold. And just as it ended, Epstein came down to the field to get a full report.
The Red Sox and Buchholz seemed encouraged afterward.
"The last bullpen I threw was in Philly and that didn't feel good at all," Buchholz said. "If I was 30 percent then, I'm 80 percent now. It definitely felt good going out there and throwing off the mound. I definitely want to be able to go out in a game, face live hitters and throw 100 percent without being tentative."
Buchholz didn't hold back during his session and felt there were no hitches in his delivery. He accomplished exactly what he was hoping for. He was able to throw all of his pitches, but concentrated mostly on the fastball.
He will play light catch Tuesday, then have another full bullpen session Wednesday. If all goes well, he'll throw a simulated game before pitching a couple of minor league rehab games.
There's no timetable for Buchholz's possible return because the Red Sox do not want to rush him. If his back is bothering him while he's pitching, he could try to overcompensate for it, which could affect his arm in a negative way.
When he does return he wants to be 100 percent.
"That's what we're trying to get ready for, and that's what I'm preparing for," Buchholz said. "I want to be ready to go, and if it's in the middle of August, that's good. If it's September, that's good too. I want to come back and help this team get to the postseason and work our way from there."
If the Red Sox earn a postseason berth, having Lester, Buchholz and Josh Beckett as the rotation for the best-of-five division series would go a long way to putting Boston on the road to success.
It's understandable why Sox players are focused on the task at hand and are not allowing outside distractions like the trade deadline affect their production.
But Red Sox management is no doubt looking at every possibility on the market.
According to a league source, even though there's still communication between the Red Sox and Mets regarding Carlos Beltran, it appears the San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies are the more likely landing spots for New York's switch-hitting outfielder.
If it looks like Buchholz won't be ready for the stretch run, the Red Sox could be interested in finding external help for the rotation. They have reportedly shown interest in Oakland's Rich Harden and the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez.
ESPNNewYork.com's Andrew Marchand reported that Dodgers righty Hiroki Kuroda would waive his no-trade clause if he were traded to the Red Sox or Yankees.
If Epstein is looking for outfield help with a right-handed bat, the Royals' Jeff Francoeur could fit the mold.
These are all names that have been mentioned as the trade deadline approaches, but the Red Sox are usually involved in numerous discussions as Epstein & Co. continually do their due diligence throughout the season.
Epstein's best approach this time could be to just hold tight.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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