FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Clay Buchholz's mulligan finally came on Tuesday afternoon, when what had been a glittering Spring Training turned into a rough outing against the Rays.

After the game, Buchholz was informed that he will most likely begin the season at Triple-A Pawtucket. But that had virtually nothing to do with the righty giving up nine hits and six runs over 5 1/3 innings in a Grapefruit League contest.

It all came down to this: the Red Sox have a loaded arsenal of starting pitchers, and Brad Penny, a two-time All-Star and 94-game winner, will likely be stretched out enough and healthy enough to claim that fifth spot when it is first available April 12 at Anaheim.

Penny will start against the Twins on Thursday, at which point an official decision is likely to be made.

"Basically, [they] just said April 12 obviously is the date, and if Penny is ready to go, they're going to give him the ball and I'll start in Pawtucket," Buchholz said. "If not, they said I'm the next guy in line. I'm just going to keep coming out every day and doing work, and then hopefully something good will happen -- something good will come out of it -- and that's basically it."

Either way, Buchholz will stay in Fort Myers and pitch in a Minor League game while the Red Sox play exhibition games in New York this weekend.

Buchholz's mission coming into camp was to make it hard for the Red Sox to squeeze him out of the rotation, and by all accounts, he accomplished just that.

"All spring, he set out to make decisions hard for us," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I mean that in a good way. He's done a terrific job. He's picked up his tempo. He's attacking with his fastball. His changeup is starting to have that old life to it and he's thrown some good breaking balls. He's done a terrific job. We're really pleased with him."

Before Tuesday's game, Buchholz had produced a 0.46 ERA in five outings. Did one tough outing taint the spring for the righty?

"I don't think so," Buchholz said. "I can't be that hard on myself. That's how I was back when I was growing up. If I had one bad game, I thought it was the end of the world. If it could be four good outings or five good outings to one bad outing, I'll take it all year, because I believe you're going to have a handful of bad outings throughout the season, anyway. This was one of them. It wasn't [even] that bad, I don't think.

"Sitting at my locker, I was [reflecting on] everything and I don't think there's anything in particular that was that bad. I left some pitches up, gave up a couple of home runs. Other than that, there were a couple of balls out of reach. If those happen to be caught, there's two outs. It was just a different scenario for one inning. It seems like whenever I do get in trouble, something happens in one inning and it rolls up."

In this case, it was a four-run fourth inning.

But unlike last year, when Buchholz would have a hard time getting off the mat following such an inning, he bounced back with a scoreless fifth inning on Tuesday.

"He's definitely making strides," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "He's still trying to ... all the pieces of the puzzle aren't all put in for him. He's going to need days like today to be able to bounce back from. He had some misfortune out there -- balls dropping, this, that and the other. He's definitely worked hard to reestablish himself."

Two years ago, Buchholz was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, even before firing a no-hitter against the Orioles. His stock dropped last year, thanks to a 6.75 ERA in 16 outings for the Red Sox.

But Buchholz clearly came in with a fresh outlook and he feels that it paid off.

"Whatever happens, I'll still be playing ball and be up in the Major Leagues sooner or later," said Buchholz. "Like I said, if Brad's healthy, he's a great pitcher, having been in the big leagues for 10 years now. He's definitely going to help the club. I hope all the health and everything for him, best wishes. Hopefully he goes out and does what he does. If not, I'll be there to back him up."

There are a lot of teams that would love a backup plan who has the talent of Buchholz.

"We're really pleased with him," said Francona.