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April 24. 2014 11:45PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Easy game, isn't it?

BOSTON -- Things worked the way they were supposed to for the Red Sox on Wednesday night. Sparked by a leadoff triple, they scored early. They tacked on a couple more runs to give themselves a cushion. They took advantage of errors and got four hits with runners in scoring position. They didn't hurt themselves defensively. They played with a lead. And, most of all, they got star-caliber starting pitching.

Put all those ingredients together and it's a winning recipe on most nights — even without needing Yankee pitcher Michael Pineda to be ejected, then suspended 10 games Thursday, for using pine tar.

"We've kind of struggled to get some runs early in the game," said Mike Napoli, who had three hits in support of John Lackey's masterpiece on the mound. "It's nice to get a couple of runs early to take the pressure off our pitcher, and John did a hell of a job. It was a good game overall."

It was so good it almost seemed easy. And for a night it might've been. But, now 23 games in, Red Sox fans know full well that easy hasn't been the norm this season.

Going into Thursday's rubber game with the rival Yanks, the Sox had scored just four first-inning runs. Their leadoff men were batting .183. Only 20.4 percent of their plate appearances, and just 10 of their first 80 runs, had come while batting with a lead. They remained one of baseball's least-efficient teams defensively. And there were lingering questions about what level of offensive and defensive contributions they can expect going forward from pretty much every position except first and second base.

But Lackey's performance offered a pertinent reminder: If the pitching is there, everything tends to be OK.

The Red Sox had been reminded of that in the opposite way the two days prior, when Clay Buchholz allowed six runs without getting out of the third, then when Jon Lester allowed 15 baserunners over 4 2/3 innings, and both games resulted in defeat. Jake Peavy wasn't particularly good in his last outing, either, while Felix Doubront has battled bouts of inconsistency thus far.

So has Lackey — but in racking up 11 strikeouts without a walk over eight excellent innings, he delivered the type of effort that can cover up for a lot of other shortcomings. To expect it consistently isn't realistic, as there's a reason manager John Farrell said it was "arguably (Lackey's) best in a Red Sox uniform," though Boston doesn't need its starter to be of that caliber every night. They just need their starters to be consistently competitive. And, more or less, pitch to the level of their capabilities.

When they do, the results are there for the Red Sox. Entering Thursday game, Boston's pitching staff had a 1.94 earned run average and a .906 rate of walks and hits per inning pitched in its wins. Conversely, the ERA soared to 7.20, and the WHIP spiked by a full baserunner — to 1.920 — in losses.

Given that the bullpen has generally been pretty good regardless of the circumstances, those numbers are largely a reflection on a starting staff that was tagged with nine of the Sox' first 12 losses. When they've struggled, it's been a struggle for the team. But when they've been good, it's been much less of a concern that the club ranked 11th among AL teams in runs, 12th in on-base plus slugging and 13th in batting average entering Thursday.

It's rarely looked easy, of course. But when the Sox starters have done their job, it has at least been easier.

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AFTER Pineda was busted, much was made about whether baseball should just legalize pine tar for pitchers, given most accept that hurlers use something on their hand to improve their grip. The argument is that if it's happening anyway, just allow it and remove the potential for controversy.

However, that approach overlooks the idea that baseball clearly believes there's a point at which the pine tar (or whatever) gives pitchers an unfair advantage over hitters. Being forced to hide it at least limits the amount they can use, and though baseball could theoretically set an actual limit in the rules to regulate the amount, it'd be up to the discretion of the umpires to enforce those limits — and that wouldn't be good.

So leave it the way it is. Leave it as an unwritten understanding among those on the field that when done discreetly it's fair. But when done in a blatant way that mocks the rule, and potentially unbalances the playing field, there are enforced consequences. Anything else is overregulation.

- - - - - -

SHANE VICTORINO made his season debut Thursday, the right fielder coming off the disabled list to bat second — and Farrell said he's likely to stay there, behind Dustin Pedroia, in the interest of stability. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks could be activated today, with the team still deciding whether to demote Jonathan Herrera or Brock Holt.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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