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May 25. 2013 10:05PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Lackey's performance key for Sox

BOSTON -- A night after ex-manager Terry Francona came back, the Red Sox weren't nearly so welcoming when three more former teammates returned to the field at Fenway Park on Friday. All pitchers, Justin Masterson gave way to Rich Hill, who gave way to Matt Albers, and by the time their seven innings were over they'd been pummeled for a total of eight runs.

Meanwhile, in the other halves of those innings, John Lackey spent a soggy night in the midst of a masterpiece. And while merely a few months ago most fans of the team would've probably preferred he join the rest in the ranks of ex-Red Sox, it's beginning to look as though the oft-maligned right-hander will be a primary factor in deciding what the Sox make of themselves in the months to come.

It's true that the Sox woke up Saturday with more wins than all but one American League team (the Rangers), and that they trailed the Yankees by just a game for the top spot in the East division. But it's also true that their status was inflated by the early season performances of their top two pitchers: In games started by Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz, the Sox were 16-4; in games started by others, they were to that point 12-16.

That puts a ton of pressure on the pair at the front of the rotation, and as talented as Lester and Buchholz both are, it's unreasonable to expect they could sustain that level of success for the length of a season. So the Sox need more from the rest of the staff if they're going to stay in contention.

Over the winter they paid Ryan Dempster to give them that, though he's needed 212 pitches to get 23 outs over his last two starts, and he's searching for his location. Felix Doubront has been encouraging lately, but consistency is still a major question with him.

And that leaves Boston looking to Lackey - which was a scary suggestion for most of his first two years with the club, but is quickly becoming a more comfortable scenario as he reestablishes himself after reconstructive elbow surgery.

With seven innings of two-hit ball on Friday, the 34-year-old Texan has now tossed 13 frames without allowing an earned run over his past two outings, thereby lowering his earned run average to 2.72 on the season and continuing to exhibit excellent command.

He started 16 of 25 Indian hitters with strikes, and for the year he's now throwing first pitch strikes to two of every three batters he faces. That's more frequent than he ever has, and by getting ahead early, he's forcing hitters to stray from their approach.

Going into Friday, Pitch f/x data said hitters were swinging at 34.5 percent of the pitches he's thrown outside the strike zone. That's also a career-best rate, indicates that Lackey is dictating at-bats, and is a testament to the teasing deceptiveness of his off-speed stuff.

"Just goes out there and pounds the zone," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "When he gets in a hitter's count he's got great off-speed stuff he can throw for strike. He was great tonight."

Lackey isn't generally throwing any harder after Tommy John surgery, but his improvement in command and in the effectiveness of his breaking pitches has enabled him to throw his four-seam fastball almost four times as often as he did during his first two seasons with the Sox.

Accordingly he's drastically reduced the number of cutters he's throwing, but the results validate that approach. His walks are down, his strikeouts are up - and, in fact, he whiffed eight hitters Friday for the third time this season, already equaling the number of times he recorded at least that many strikeouts in his first 61 starts with the Sox.

"It's not like I've never been good before," Lackey said. "(I'm) not fighting a whole lot of old things, just being able to execute pitches."

John Farrell said it's evident that Lackey isn't thinking about the past when he's pitching, and the manager is seemingly beginning to trust his hurler's health and his ability more. Friday's 109 pitches were a season-high, and he was left in to handle the seventh inning with Boston holding a 4-1 lead.

Striking out the final two, he delivered - and it would be huge for the Red Sox if he continues to do so. In fact, when asked Friday night how big of a boon it would be if Lackey was to bolster the rotation the way he has in his last two turns, Saltalamacchia said, "If we keep pitching like this, we'll win the World Series."

He was joking, of course. But it's no joke to suggest Lackey - of all people - could ultimately determine whether the Sox are even in position to get there.


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Jacoby Ellsbury showed some signs of life late last week, reaching four times on Wednesday, then plating two runs as part of a game-busting rally Friday night. If that doesn't lead into some sort of breakout, there's speculation that Ellsbury could lose his leadoff spot, considering the Sox entered the weekend with the AL's second-worst on-base plus slugging from that spot in the order.

Though the first batter is hardly the only slot in which the Sox pale in comparison to the league. Dustin Pedroia's two puts the Sox dead last in home runs by their No. 3 hitter. Their No. 5 hitters strike out more than anyone. So do their No. 7 hitters. And their No. 8 hitters have combined for a well-below-average OPS.

Based on that, a lineup shake-up could be forthcoming.


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Stat of the week: Masterson has yielded 10 runs in 11 innings (8.18 ERA) against his old team this season, while surrendering 17 runs in 65 innings (2.35 ERA) against the rest of baseball.

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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