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Dan Shaughnessy

Can Clay Buchholz shoulder the load?

ST. LOUIS — When, precisely, did Clay Buchholz become a No. 4 starter?

Listening to Buchholz and Red Sox manager John Farrell Saturday made me wonder if Buchholz will actually get the ball Sunday night. Neither said anything that would lead a Sox fan to believe that Buchholz is physically or mentally ready for the first World Series start of his life.

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If Buchholz does pitch — and the Sox say he will — he will be on a short leash. Buchholz’s shoulder strength is waning and his fastball is getting slower. There is zero confidence Buchholz is going to take charge like a latter-day Bob Gibson.

“Obviously, given the couple of days that I’ve been out so far, not a hundred percent,’’ Buchholz said Saturday. “Just had a little tightness [in his last outing], regardless of what it was, fatigue, whatever . . . I went three-plus innings with tightness. That’s how I’m staying stable as far as mentally.’’

Yikes. This guy is going to start a World Series game? Where’s Bobby Sprowl when you need him?

It should scare you to realize that the Sox have determined that, at this hour, Buchholz is their fourth-best starter.

Fourth-best? That’s supposed to be Al Nipper.

Nipper was a nice guy, a stable pony for Roger Clemens, a great competitor, and something of a meatball artist. He was the Red Sox No. 4 starter for the 1986 World Series. He was the guy who followed Bruce Hurst, Clemens, and Oil Can Boyd in the rotation. He started Game 4 against the Mets because Tom Seaver had to shut down after hurting his knee in September. Nip submitted his usual gutty effort (6 innings, 7 hits, 3 runs) but surrendered a two-run homer to Gary Carter and the Sox lost, 6-2, as the Mets evened the Series.

Now Clay Buchholz is the No. 4 guy for the Red Sox. That’s Buchholz, the guy who was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA before he closed shop for three months with a sore shoulder.

Buchholz has better stuff than any pitcher on the Sox staff. He is the Sox’ most talented pitcher. He is apparently healthy enough to pitch in the World Series, but the club has consciously decided to have him make only one start in a seven-game series. Saturday night’s starter, Jake Peavy, is lined up to pitch Game 7.

This is astounding. It is scary. It makes you wonder if Buchholz should be taking the mound at all.

Which is it? If Buchholz is good enough to pitch Sunday night, why didn’t he get an assignment for one of the first three games? If he’s not good enough to go, why is he getting the ball?

It would not surprise me to see Ryan Dempster get the ball Sunday night. If Buchholz does start, he’s not going nine. The Sox lifted him from a shutout after 85 pitches and five-plus innings against the Tigers eight days ago (he was charged with both runs in the Sox’ 5-2 victory). After that, it was all soft toss and flat ground until Saturday, when Buchholz had a short bullpen session.

Listening to Buchholz reminded me of listening to poor Jeremy Hellickson before he started Game 4 against the Sox in the Division Series at the Trop Dome. Hellickson sounded like a man readying for a firing squad. Hellickson was pulled before getting an out in the second inning.

Regarding Buchholz Sunday night, Farrell said, “There will be at least a thought of a game time or a range or pitches. It’s kind of an estimation. It’s not something exact . . . You go in and pay attention to every pitch that’s thrown, look at how they’re maintaining their arm strength or overall stuff and you adjust accordingly. While you’re more in tune with the recent starts of a pitcher, you stay in touch with that and begin to maybe think ahead of time and getting guys prepared. If you’ve got a guy coming in behind him.’’

In other words: be ready, Franklin Morales.

Buchholz simply hasn’t been the same pitcher since he returned from three months on the disabled list. In four starts in September he went 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA. That’s pretty good, but it was clear he didn’t have the same command of his pitches.

It’s been downhill in the big games in October. In three postseason starts (one vs. Tampa, two vs. Detroit), Buchholz was roughed up for 19 hits and a 5.40 ERA in 16 innings. Most of the damage came in Game 2 at Fenway against the Tigers. Buchholz was routed by the Tigers, but saved when David Ortiz hit his game-tying grand slam in the eighth inning.

“I’m going to compete and give my team the best chance of winning that I can,’’ said Buchholz. “And if something does come up that I’m feeling a little rundown, then, yeah, that’s something that I’ll let them know.’’

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy
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