Boston Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz pitches to the Toronto Blue Jays during the eighth inning of their MLB American League baseball game in Toronto, August 11, 2010.  REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Last night’s 6-0 victory over the Angels didn’t gain the Sox any games in the standings. With the Yankees and Rays both victorious, Boston still sits five and a half games behind the AL East’s co-leaders. You’d be forgiven, though, if you felt a surge of hope after the final out, because this game displayed all the reasons the Sox are still in contention this year, and a harbinger of the one recovery that might propel them ahead.

This season has been as trying as any in recent Red Sox history, but it has also been as inspiring. Going into the year, I anticipated this club to be one of my favorites, and it turns out I was right, but for the wrong reasons: while I was expecting a run-prevention monster with a solid, top-five AL offense, what I got was a ragtag crew beset by injury but still, through a better than expected offense and contributions from the most unexpected of places, managing to hang in contention all year. Between the strong and consistent pitching of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester to the season-saving heroics of journeymen and minor leaguers like Darnell McDonald, Bill Hall, Daniel Nava and Ryan Kalish, this team has kept on the trail of a playoff berth when they should have been written off. And now, the day after Dustin Pedroia’s emotional return, the most important cog in the team’s machinery is back where he belongs. This season has defied every prediction so far, but if the Sox were to go on a tear from here on out, count me among those who wouldn’t be in the least surprised.

Clay Buchholz was, once again, exceptional last night. He didn’t strike out as many as he is capable, but he got outs, scattering five hits over seven innings. With his record at 14-5 and his ERA at a league-best 2.36, it worth asking whether Clay Buchholz could be the American League’s Cy Young Award winner this season. His competition, after all, doesn’t have the combination of ERA and Wins he has; he is the only pitcher in the league who can claim a top five berth in both categories. His strikeout totals are low, but he missed three starts mid-season; the biggest knock against him to this point is his WHIP, which is not traditionally a stat many Cy Young voters take into account. Looking at the stat lines, the only real competition comes from Tampa Bay’s David Price, New York’s CC Sabathia, and Buchholz’s own teammate, Jon Lester. All three have an ERA half a run or more worse than Clay’s. Let the Buchholz for Cy Young bandwagon start now.

Another bandwagon that may be growing in size lately is the Ryan Kalish for LF movement. Kalish’s first career grand slam last night was merely the latest accomplishment for the New Jersey native, who at just 22 years old has already shown that he can hack it in the bigs. With a .300/.340/.391 line, his power may still need some time, but he can hit. His minor league track record shows definite power potential and the ability to get on base. With some work over the winter, I don’t see a reason why Kalish couldn’t become a regular face in the Fenway outfield in 2011, either as the starting left fielder or, if the Sox patience with Jacoby Ellsbury runs out, in center.

Finally, the biggest news of the night came from the smallest player on the field: returning MVP and de facto team captain Dustin Pedroia’s first game back from a broken foot that had sidelined him since late June. Pedroia went 0-4 in his return, but his presence means a great deal to this club, and his fire could help spark this team on a run when both the Yankees and Rays seem as vulnerable as they have all season.

I believe the Red Sox can win this division this year. If they do, it will be an incredible tale of perseverance, and will take its place among the finer seasons in club history. The three players above will be right in the middle of it, and they may represent the future of this club – in 2011 and for years to come.