Clay Buchholz has been so good, it’s frustrating to watch

–AP Photo/Elise Amendola

COMMENTARY

It’s as irritating as it is entertaining, isn’t it?

Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz, odd hairdo and all, cruised through eight innings of shutout baseball Tuesday night to blank the surging Twins – then winners of seven of eight – by a 1-0 final in a game that took a crisp 2 hours and 21 minutes. In allowing just three hits and two walks while striking out eight opposite Mike Pelfrey, who outdueled him in Minnesota a week earlier, it was a Sox pitcher’s longest scoreless outing since Buchholz himself tossed a complete game in Tampa to conclude last August. The righty snapped Boston’s three-game skid and earned only his second win in his last 10 starts.

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Earned is a funny word.

Buchholz has allowed two earned runs or fewer in four straight starts and he’s worked at least 7 1/3 innings in each of those outings, putting him in favorable historical company.

Unfortunately for Buchholz, he has just one win to show for it because the Sox have given him four total runs during that span. In fact, the club has scored only one run in seven of the veteran’s last nine trips to the mound.

He’s earned a better fate.

For now, thanks, Rusney Castillo, and thanks for bringing your glove.

The devastating lack of offense aside, watching Buchholz has been so damn pleasurable it’s painful. Parts of 10 seasons in Boston have shown fans to great extremes, very simply, you never know which Buchholz you’re going to get when he toes the rubber. He could be the two-time All-Star, the guy who finished sixth in the American League’s Cy Young voting in 2010 before looking like a front-runner to win the award three years later until “sleeping funny’’ derailed his season. He could also be guy who’s twice ended a season with an ERA north of 5 and looked like he shouldn’t even be in his club’s rotation, let alone the de facto No. 1.

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Buchholz has rarely in his career proven to be a stopper, a gamer, or one who shows fiery emotion on the mound, whether in celebration or infuriation. His mental toughness has been attacked time and time again (guilty). Then you have nights like last night, when the veteran cruised through eight frames with an efficient 92 pitches while still recovering from a weekend illness.

“I definitely didn’t feel 100 percent,’’ a no doubt relieved Buchholz told reporters after his first win since May 10. “I mean if it was any other day and I felt good and it was how the game was going, I wouldn’t have let [manager John Farrell] take me out of the game. But I was gassed.’’

Six starts into his 2015 campaign, Buchholz had allowed 21 earned runs over 31 1/3 innings for a 6.03 ERA. In five outings since, the righty has surrendered just eight earned runs and amassed a 1.95 ERA over 37 frames. He has a staff-best 3.82 ERA, well ahead of Wade Miley’s 4.97 mark, and career-highs of 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings and a nearly 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And, you know what? You would be no more surprised if Buchholz gave up six runs and retired just five men in his next start against the Athletics than if he went out and gave up one run in seven innings.

Just consider the game log. On Opening Day, Buchholz blanked the Phillies over seven and allowed three hits. His next time out, he was torched for 10 runs – nine earned – in 3 1/3 frames in the Bronx. Later in April, he held the Rays to one run on two hits in six innings in Tampa. Five days later, the Blue Jays tagged him for five runs – four earned – and he didn’t make it out of the third.

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Capable of the best, prepare for the worst. That’s the enigma of Clay Buchholz.

Truth is, at least for this humble observer, watching Buchholz pitch well is almost more difficult than seeing him mope off the mound and answer questions from the media with that look of emptiness in his eyes on the nights his curve is straight as a slow fastball.

On nights like his last, Buchholz resembles all the hope and praise that’s been bestowed upon him throughout his lengthy but turbulent career. He looks like the man principal owner John Henry confidently proclaimed the ace after watching him mystify the Phillies in April. He looks like a player whom you’d trust to fill the gaping hole left behind by the departure of legitimate ace Jon Lester. He looks like someone with enough talent to trick a team into awarding him $20 million a year if he could ever somehow string a couple of high-caliber seasons together.

But, as we know, that’s never happened. At this point, it’s hard to believe it ever will.

Buchholz has never started 30 games in a season. He’s never pitched 200 innings. Hell, he’s never even reached 17 starts and 109 innings in consecutive campaigns. He’s only offered sub-4 ERA’s in straight seasons once, but that stretch from 2010-11 still resulted in modest two-year totals of 23 wins, 42 starts, and 256 1/3 frames.

As a result, even picking up Buchholz’s very affordable $13 million option for next season versus eating the $245,000 buyout is as far from a no-brainer as they come for the guy who seized our attention with a no-hitter in his second career start as a 22-year-old.

Maybe late-spring acquisition Sandy Leon is the Buchholz Whisperer. The starter has a 2.55 ERA (14 ER, 49 1/3 IP) this year when pitching to Leon, compared to a 7.11 ERA (15 ER, 19 IP) when throwing to someone else. Perhaps new pitching coach Carl Willis is the reason. Buchholz’s success has come since Juan Nieves was given a pink slip.

Whatever the case, what Buchholz is doing is working.

“He’s been on a real good run and certainly kept us in ballgames given the few runs he’s allowed over I think the last four starts,’’ Farrell told reporters after watching Buchholz permit just one runner to reach second base. “It’s been very strong for him and he’s doing such a good job repeating his delivery. When you see the number of swing and miss that he’s getting with his changeup and his curveball, he’s on a good little run right now.’’

Your guess is as good as mine as to whether that run will continue.

There a number of questions the reeling Red Sox must answer with just two wins in their last eight games and following a miserable 10-19 May, but a 1-0 victory to start a 1-0 June on the arm of the club’s most unpredictable member of the rotation is a good place to begin.

What to make of Buchholz, though, is an answer we may never have. A train wreck one month, a potential All-Star the next. All we can do is buckle up and hope he delivers again, same as it’s been for the last decade.

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