Clay Buchholz was cruising along nicely last night at Tropicana Field. Making his first start in 25 days after the esophagitis that landed him in the hospital, he had only allowed the Tampa Bay Rays two runs in six innings.

He had allowed only three hits. He had eight strikeouts.

"I had questions about sending him back out," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said, "but he didn't have many pitches and he said he hadn't even broken a sweat yet."

"I wouldn't have told him I felt fine if I didn't feel fine," Buchholz said. "Everything felt good."

So Buchholz went out for the seventh inning, and that's when everything changed. He walked Luke Scott, hit Jeff Keppinger and was lifted after both runners moved up on a sacrifice bunt.

Buchholz was reduced to the role of spectator as reliever Matt Albers allowed both inherited runners to score, one of them on a bases-loaded walk. When it was done, the Rays had the lead, and eventually a 5-3 victory over the Red Sox.

A loss is a loss, and in the end Buchholz was the losing pitcher, charged with four earned runs in 61/3 innings. But accounting for the long layoff — which included a stint in the ICU — and considering the eight strikeouts in six innings, the Red Sox will move optimistically ahead to his next outing.

"Buchholz was really good — really good right 'til the end there," said Valentine. "His curve was good, his changeup, his command, his fastball was good, he got some called strike threes."