Is Buchholz pitching for his job tonight?

BOSTON -- The picture has been obscured by the walkoff wins, the David Ortiz soap opera, the Darnell McDonald fairy tale, the Mike Lowell comeback saga, the stolen base slapstick, and the outfield M.A.S.H. unit.

But could someone please explain the early returns of the Red Sox starting rotation, which ranks at the bottom of the American League?

After Josh Beckett gave up seven runs in seven innings Wednesday night -- four runs early, Josh Hamilton’s monster three-run home run in the seventh -- the ERA for the Sox rotation stands at 5.76 (55 earned runs in 86 innings).

The Big Three? In 10 starts among them, they have three wins. Jon Lester’s ERA is 8.44. John Lackey is at 5.63, Beckett 5.26. Opposing batters are hitting over .300 against Lester (.313), Lackey (.311) and Tim Wakefield (.303), while hitting .283 against Beckett. They’re also slugging .450 or better against all four pitchers as well, compared to a league average of .430.

The only starter with an ERA under 5 is Clay Buchholz (1.80), and he is looking over his shoulder at Daisuke Matsuzaka, who made what was supposed to be his last rehab start for Pawtucket Wednesday night and is primed to rejoin the rotation.

Here is a breakdown of Matsuzaka’s start against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, as provided by Pawtucket broadcaster Dan Hoard on his blog.

Manager Terry Francona has yet to address how he intends to incorporate Matsuzaka in the rotation; that may come later today. Pitching coach John Farrell said at the end of spring training that the team was not ruling out a six-man rotation, but if Cubs manager Lou Piniella can stick ace Carlos Zambrano in the bullpen, it’s possible that Francona might reluctantly do the same with Buchholz.

Buchholz was tagged for four unearned runs in the first inning of his last start when center-fielder Mike Cameron, playing through the pain of an abdominal tear, dropped a line drive hit right at him, and a couple of batters later Pat Burrell doubled home three runs.

Buchholz has options left, which means the Sox could send him back to Pawtucket to allow him to continue to pitch regularly. Wakefield has been a strong first-half performer the last couple of seasons before injuries have caused him to fade, a pattern that at age 43 is likely to continue. But a strong start from Buchholz on Thursday night against the Rangers could complicate the Sox’s decisions.

So far, Red Sox starters have combined for just 5 quality starts (3 ER or less, 6 IP or more) out of 15, a 33 percent rate that also ranks last in the league. It’s a small sample size, and no one expects that to continue. Shoddy defense has been a contributing factor, and the arms are simply too good not to expect a turnaround. But they are not exempt in accounting for the team’s slow start.