John Lackey Takes Pressure Off Thin Bullpen, Shows Signs of Complete Turnaround

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John Lackey Takes Pressure Off Thin Bullpen, Shows Signs of Complete Turnaround Because of some difficult outings early in the season and then an elbow injury, John Lackey — the Red Sox leader in innings, starts and quality starts last year — has been the odd man out in 2011.

On Friday night, he was incredibly clutch.

Pitching on a night when the Red Sox were already without closer Jonathan Papelbon, serving the first game of a two-game suspension, and when the Milwaukee Brewers came out swinging with seven hits among the first 13 hitters, Lackey was perilously close to hindering the bullpen in the series opener and perhaps taking a step back in his pursuit of consistency.

After a remarkable defensive play by second baseman Dustin Pedroia, Lackey found his groove, and then some.

The right-hander retired 15 straight and 16 of the final 17 he faced in eight solid innings, his longest start as a member of the Red Sox. He did not walk a batter for the first time since last September, striking out five. Although the results were a bit uneven (the Brewers scored four times in that early hit parade), the bottom line left Lackey with a 3-0 record and a 5.03 ERA since returning from the disabled list.

That ERA won’t make anyone forget Bob Gibson in 1968, but considering that number was three runs higher when Lackey hit the disabled list last month, it represents a big step in the right direction.

“He’s throwing the ball well for us,” said catcher Jason Varitek. “You take away the Texas start, you take away the one New York start, early in that game against Anaheim, and he’s doing well. You get through eight your second [actually third] start coming off the DL stint, that’s pretty impressive.”

Even those four early runs came with that “soft hit” asterisk. A shallow bloop double that landed just fair down the line in left was the big hit in a two-run second. The Brewers fought off a few pitches for hits in the two-run third.

Yet, through those rocky frames, the Red Sox were seeing what they wanted to see from Lackey early in the season before he began to be hampered by elbow issues.

“I thought today was the best stuff he’s had. I was really pleased,” manager Terry Francona said. “I know he gave up four runs early, but it was crisp. He was getting extension, he was down, and then again changing speeds.”

Those needing more numbers for proof of Lackey's turnaround can glance beyond that 5.03 ERA. Since coming off the DL, he has allowed just 17 hits and four walks in 19 2/3 innings. In the 39 1/3 innings before hitting “The List,” he surrendered 53 hits and 18 walks, or nearly two runners an inning. His strikeout rate per nine innings before the injury was 4.39. It is 7.78 since coming back.

While Lackey will always preach pitching to contact and trusting noted defenders such as Pedroia, he feels that the uptick in Ks is a positive outcome.

“I’ve definitely been getting some more [strikeouts],” Lackey said. “That says a lot about how things are feeling a little stronger.”

Clearly, the club’s “No. 4 starter,” an awkward tag considering the constant shuffling of the rotation, is finally on the right course.

“A lot better,” he said of how he felt Friday. “I think everything is a little firmer, a little crisper, for sure.”

Lackey often talks about the importance of building arm strength, perhaps more so than his colleagues.

It is an important mission during spring training and often one that extends a bit into the regular season before he finds his groove. In his first year with the Sox, he saw a dramatic drop in his WHIP, opponents’ average and K/BB rates after the All-Star break. His ERA after the intermission was nearly a run lower than it was before.

On Friday, Lackey indicated that because of the setback with the elbow, the arm strength leveled off early short of its goal.

However, an 111-pitch outing Friday, which followed up a 112-pitch performance in a win at Toronto, has the 32-year-old on the precipice of that goal. There was a false start to Lackey’s second season in Boston, but the rebirth is beginning to take shape.

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