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Nick Cafardo | On baseball

Can Clay Buchholz ever be the Red Sox ace?

Whether he likes it or not, Clay Buchholz is the Red Sox’ No. 1 starter right now. Bob DeChiara/USA Today

Bob DeChiara/USA Today

Whether he likes it or not, Clay Buchholz is the Red Sox’ No. 1 starter right now.

His big brothers are gone. He had to stand on his own two feet. He needed to step up and be the leader of Boston’s pitching staff.

Faced with all of the above, Clay Buchholz threw up all over himself.

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How disappointing this had to be for the Red Sox that Buchholz blew two three-run leads, threw 114 pitches and allowed five walks in five innings. He left in a 7-7 tie in an eventual 8-7 loss to the Yankees.

Jon Lester and John Lackey were Buchholz’s mentors. As long as they were around, Buchholz could always slouch into that No. 3 role, and look up at Lester and Lackey and go along for the ride. That is no longer the case.

Buchholz is a talented pitcher, but if you don’t perform, what good is it?

In his last two starts, Buchholz has pitched 10 innings, allowed 15 hits, 14 runs, 9 walks, and 8 strikeouts.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” Buchholz said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

Asked what went wrong, he said, “Everything. Command . . . I didn’t have a feel for much of anything and it’s the second start in a row where walks killed me. My mind-set is always to go out and compete and keep my team in the game and obviously I didn’t do that.’’

Buchholz just can’t solve the riddle of why he’s been so bad. He keeps going to the drawing board with the intent of putting the bad outings behind him.

“I felt like that a lot this year,” Buchholz said. “Go back to work tomorrow.

“It’s been a frustrating year for me and the organization. It’s not the way we wanted to wear the Red Sox uniform and go out and perform. A lot of that is on my shoulders — I need to pick it up during the season. I know you’re not supposed to look at the board and numbers but it’s been a constant battle of trying to throw up zeroes and when it doesn’t happen it’s frustrating. I have to find a way to get through it.’’

We’ve seen him in the best of times and the worst of times. The magnificent stretches — like the 9-0 start he got off to last season with a 1.74 ERA, or 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA in 2010 in 28 starts. The no-hitter he pitched in his second major league start vs. Baltimore.

The stinkers have been simply awful.

A No. 1 starter has to be consistent. And Buchholz simply isn’t.

The Red Sox may go out and find two new veteran pitchers between now and spring training and one of them could very well be Lester. But in the meantime, Buchholz has to emerge as the leader of this young staff.

Nobody ever knows why pitchers seem to get themselves out of whack. Lester went through much soul-searching and experimentation when all of a sudden he lost his mojo in September of 2012 and had a huge hand in Boston’s demise. It took him all of 2013 to really get back to being an elite pitcher.

“He’s got the best stuff you’ll see anywhere in this game,” said Red Sox catcher David Ross of Buchholz. “You’re not going to find a more talented pitcher who can throw four or five pitches any time he wants to for strikes. The injuries and the mechanics, they can do a number on you and it takes time to come back, but Buch is doing all he can. He’s working hard. Nobody wants to get back to being what he was more than Buch.”

The neck/shoulder injury he had last season threw him for a loop. Sure, maybe he’s not the bulldog type that you’d like to see.

He doesn’t have that Lester/Roger Clemens toughness in him. But he doesn’t have to with his stuff. All he has to do is command the strike zone, keep his mechanics consistent, and throw his arsenal — two-seamer, four-seamer, slider, changeup, split — effectively and the dominance will return.

Easier said than done.

He’s certainly not doing that now.

It’s really Buchholz’s time to stand up and be the ace. The Red Sox may be able to pick off James Shields or Justin Masterson in free agency. Maybe they can deal for Cole Hamels, but they’re not going to get someone as good as Lester. But if Buchholz finally can get over the 200-inning hump (he got as far as 189 in 2012) and stay healthy for a full season, he could be the ace.

There’s no more looking to Lackey and Lester. Buchholz is now the big boy on the pitching staff. He’s got to be the mentor for Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens, Rubby De La Rosa, and Allen Webster. He’s got to be the horse who shows the rest of the young guns how it’s done, just like how Josh Beckett, Lester, and Lackey showed him.

This is a responsibility he needs to embrace.

It’s not like the Red Sox are paying him chicken feed. He’s earning $7.7 million this year. That rises to $12 million in 2015 and then $13 million in 2016 and $13.5 million in 2017 on team options.

He’ll turn 30 Aug. 14, and with that comes the responsibility of being a leader.

“He has the experience and the success in the role and in this division, and certainly here in Boston to be in that position, to share the experiences that he’s gone through,” manager John Farrell said. “I think he’s seen all sides of it, the injured side, the successful side, the World Series, that he can impart a lot of those experiences on guys. And I think he’ll relish the opportunity to do just that.”

Staked to a 3-0 lead in the first inning Sunday night, he loaded the bases in the second inning. Gave the lead right back. Up 7-4, he gave up the lead again.

This is not what a No. 1 does.

The Red Sox have high hopes for Buchholz. They expected someday he would be a No. 1.

That day didn’t come Sunday. Will it ever?

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.
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