Will the real Clay Buchholz please stand up?
A pitcher who can be described no better than as an enigma was at his best Sunday afternoon in St. Petersburg. And the man the Red Sox front office hopes can be the team's ace next season came through with arguably his best start of the 2014 season, pitching his team to a 3-0 win.
Buchholz completed his second game of the season - also his second shutout. His nine-inning, three-hit performance came nine starts after he completely shut down the Houston Astros in the last start of the first half of the season. Buchholz struck out 12 Astros in his first shutout of the season. He perplexed the Rays in a different way on Sunday.
The Boston right-hander pitched to contact successfully at Tropicana Field - inducing 13 ground ball outs and needing just six strikeouts to negotiate the entire ball game. Forcing so much weak contact at the defense behind him kept Buchholz's pitch count down the entire game. And he finished a complete game more efficiently than any Red Sox pitcher has in quite a while.
Less than 100 pitches
The 98 pitches it took Buchholz to go the distance was the first time since 2012 that a Boston starting pitcher finished a game with less than 100 pitches. Aaron Cook threw a shutout in June of that 2012 season on just 81 tosses.
But for Boston fans, Buchholz's outing on Sunday was just another confusing chapter in what's been a career that pulls and tugs at the heart's of fans. Buchholz entered the game with a 5.77 ERA and had surrendered at least four earned runs in five of his last eight starts.
From a no-hitter as a rookie to a 12-1 season last year before going down with an injury, Buchholz has provided fans with some shots of dominance. But an inconsistent track record and injury problems have fans doubtful that he can be a reliable ace among an inexperienced staff next year. That said, he was about as good as it gets on Sunday.
On Twitter after the game, Joe Maddon conceded his team's lack of offensive punch all season, but also acknowledged the game Buchholz threw - calling the Boston starter "that good."
The Rays' skipper also said that his team must be historically good in the last month of the season to get to the playoffs, which surely is not an over exaggeration.
"We have to be the 2007 Rockies the rest of the way," Maddon tweeted. The Rays will need some of that Colorado magic - and some help - to find themselves back in the October tournament.