After a heartbreaking loss at Camden Yards on Friday night, the Red Sox can take solace in one thing: Their No. 3 starter has rounded into form.
Throughout the first month of the season, John Lackey struggled to finish hitters off. His fastball didn’t have the oomph, his curveball didn’t have the break, and his changeup didn’t have the deception necessary to keep opponents off balance.
As a result, Lackey wasn’t able to get hitters to swing and miss as often as he’d been accustomed to in the past. Over the course of his career, the 31-year-old righty has generated whiffs on 19.7 percent of opposing swings. But during his first four starts of the 2010 season, Lackey watched that rate plummet to just 11.1 percent, and he suddenly was unable to put hitters away.
Though Lackey has never been an elite power pitcher, he has a career strikeout rate of 7.16 per nine innings. The inability to generate swing-throughs this season sent that number tumbling to just 4.30. Lackey had just 11 total strikeouts heading into his second matchup with the Orioles, and he failed to collect more than three in any of his prior starts this season.
But on Friday, things finally came together, and Lackey emerged as the pitcher the Red Sox thought they signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract during the offseason.
"There were definitely some positives to take out of this game," Lackey said following the Red Sox' 5-4, 10-inning loss. "I got into a groove tonight and [Victor Martinez] called a great game for me.”
Lackey pitched seven innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits and three walks, while doubling his previous season-high strikeout total by punching out six Orioles. He threw 120 pitches, 70 of which went for strikes.
Asked whether his highest pitch total of the year might prove worrisome down the road, Lackey replied, "I’m a big boy, and I’ll get through it."
The biggest difference for Lackey on Friday was his curveball, which he employed to notch three of his first four strikeouts on the evening.
Lackey’s renewed confidence in the pitch was evident throughout the night.
In the first inning, with two runs already in for Baltimore and a full count on the powerful Luke Scott, he threw a curve that fooled Scott, leading him to swing and miss. Matt Wieters was subsequently caught stealing second, enabling Lackey to limit the damage done against the Red Sox in the opening frame to two runs.
In the third inning, Lackey threw three consecutive curves to Adam Jones, coming back from a 2-1 count to send the young outfielder back to his dugout. A pitcher doesn’t throw three consecutive, identical offspeed pitches unless he’s certain that the offering is sharp.
The effectiveness of his curveball enabled Lackey to be more selective about the use of his fastball, cutter and changeup, thereby making it harder for hitters to know what to expect. Thus, the same Orioles who collected 10 hits in seven innings against him six days earlier were held to only six of them on Friday night.
The Red Sox finished April with a disappointing record of 11-12, largely because of the inconsistency of their starting rotation.
Boston’s starters were just 6-6 with a 4.86 ERA during the month.
But after Jon Lester ‘s 11-strikeout gem on Wednesday in Toronto and Lackey’s marked improvement on Friday in Baltimore, there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic that the expected success for Boston’s starting staff will soon come.