Perhaps John Farrell merely was trying to diminish expectations. More likely he really didn’t know what to expect.

Regardless this is what the Red Sox manager said Sunday in anticipation of Clay Buchholz’ return to the mound tonight: “We really can’t expect that he’d come back and pitch to the form that led him to a 1.70 ERA and the record that he has. We’re hopeful that we get a guy that’s close to what he was prior to the injury.”

Turns out Buchholz looks exactly the same.

Making his first start since June 8 Buchholz showed not only that his balky right shoulder finally is healthy but also that he still is capable of dominating. The All-Star right-hander allowed only three hits in five scoreless and walk-free innings against the freefalling Rays before yielding to a 74-pitch limit.

From there the bullpen recorded the last 12 outs including four from unhittable closer Koji Uehara and despite facing reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price the Red Sox eked out a 2-0 victory lowering to 10 their magic number to clinch their first AL East title since 2007.

It was the sort of taut pitchers’ duel that the Sox will need to win next month in the postseason. Surely they will shed no tears if they don’t see the Rays there for there aren’t any lefties tougher than Price.

While most eyes at Tropicana Field were trained on Buchholz eager to see the explosiveness of his fastball and the sharpness of his changeup after a three-month layoff Price didn’t allow a baserunner through four innings. It was a reminder of the back-to-back starts at Fenway Park in late July when he allowed a total of only two runs on seven hits in 161⁄3 innings and beat the Red Sox twice in a five-night span.

But scorching first baseman Mike Napoli opened the fifth with a drive that sent Desmond Jennings sprinting to the warning track in straightaway center field. The ball glanced off Jennings’ glove Napoli cruised into second base with a double then scored easily when Jennings fielded Jonny Gomes’ single up the middle and uncorked a low throw that sailed wide of the plate.

Realizing that runs were at a premium against Price Farrell ordered Daniel Nava to drop a sacrifice bunt that moved Gomes to third. And Jarrod Saltalamacchia followed with a sacrifice fly to deep center field scoring Gomes to give the Red Sox a two-run lead and match the number of runs they had scored against Price in the previous 201⁄3 innings.