BOSTON — John Lackey has become more than just a pleasant surprise. He is the Red Sox’ most reliable starter right now.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Lackey — the same pitcher who was on the verge of being run out of town after two subpar seasons and a year on the shelf — has morphed into a model of consistency at a time when the Red Sox absolutely need it. Jon Lester is in the midst of a prolonged slump and Clay Buchholz is battling a nagging injury, yet Lackey keeps pitching like a front-end starter.
John Farrell said before Wednesday’s game that Lackey’s efforts will take on even greater importance as the season rolls on, particularly because of the issues plaguing Lester and Buchholz. Lackey went out and proved again that he’s up to the task, tossing seven meaningful innings en route to a 5-3 win over the Rockies.
Lackey struck out a season-high 12 hitters on Wednesday, and he didn’t yield a walk. That marks the first time a Red Sox pitcher has struck out 12 or more hitters without surrendering a walk since Pedro Martinez accomplished the feat on May 3, 2003.
“Probably the strongest he’s been all year,” Farrell said. “Outstanding fastball command, good power to it, a lot of strikes. … He was outstanding today.”
Lackey’s 12 strikeouts also matched a career high. He has now reached the 10-strikeout plateau 14 times in his career, although he hadn’t done so since 2010 prior to Wednesday. The 12 K’s are Lackey’s most since Sept. 21, 2008, when he struck out a dozen as a member of the Angels.
“It speaks to where my stuff’s at right now, I guess,” Lackey said. “I was locating pretty well, Salty [Jarrod Saltalamacchia] called a great game, we had a good game plan I thought, and I was able to execute.”
Lackey’s seven-inning effort on Wednesday is the latest in what has been an excellent season for the 34-year-old, who missed all of 2012 because of Tommy John surgery. He has given up three earned runs or fewer in 11 of his 13 starts this season, and seven of his last eight outings have been quality starts.
“He’s not competing against his body,” Farrell said. “The Tommy John surgery, the rehab, the reshaping of the body, it’s almost like we’re looking at a different guy in a couple of ways. His stuff doesn’t tail off as it might have early on when he signed here. He’s always been a tenacious competitor — we continue to see that every time he walks to the mound. But much to the credit to what John has put himself through, and that includes the surgery and all the work he has put in following that.”
Lackey now owns a 2.99 ERA, which is his best mark through his first 13 starts of a season since 2007. Only Buchholz (1.71) owns a better ERA among Boston starters, and it was revealed before Wednesday’s game that Buchholz — who hasn’t pitched since June 8 — is still feeling discomfort in his neck. As long as he’s on the shelf and Lester fights inconsistency, the Red Sox need their other horses to step up, and Lackey is confident that he’ll continue to do so.
“Jon will be fine and Clay healthy obviously has done great so I’m not worried about those guys at all,” Lackey said. “With those guys, with whatever’s happening, I need to pitch well. I’ve been the guy that’s gone first on playoff teams.”
If Lackey is the Red Sox’ No. 1 starter at the end of the year, then the team might be in some trouble. Lackey pitching like an ace right now, however, is keeping the trouble away for the time being.