The crowd of 34,632 at Fenway Park stood and cheered when John Lackey walked off the mound in the seventh inning Wednesday afternoon. They correctly surmised he was done for the day after a strong performance against the Colorado Rockies.
Lackey, who has been booed by those same fans plenty of times during his often painful tenure with the Red Sox, smiled a bit as he approached the dugout and accepted the handshakes of his teammates.
“He gave us exactly what we needed,” first baseman Mike Napoli said after the Sox wrapped up a 5-3 victory to sweep a two-game interleague series. “That was the Lackey I know, the guy who won all those games for the Angels.”
Lackey allowed two runs and struck out 12, matching his career best. Not only didn’t he walk a batter, he went to a three-ball count only three times.
The last Red Sox pitcher to strike out 12 without a walk was Pedro Martinez in 2003. Not since Curt Schilling in 2004 had a Sox pitcher struck out a dozen at Fenway.
Outside of Josh Rutledge, Lackey fanned every Rockies hitter at least once.
Red Sox manager John Farrell said it was the strongest Lackey has looked in his 13 starts this season. He commanded a fastball that was consistently 92-94 miles per hour and touched 95. When needed, Lackey froze hitters with a slider.
“He was outstanding,” Farrell said.
There was unerring efficiency, too. Lackey needed only 98 pitches to complete his seven innings and 73 of those were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of the 29 hitters he faced.
Lackey waved off all the impressive statistics that came out of his 133d career win.
“All the little numbers, I’m kind of past all that in my career,” he said. “I just want to win, man. I’m here to try to win a ring. All the little numbers that they like to talk about, I’m not really all into.”
The velocity was eye-catching and hinted at what could be further improvement for Lackey as he moves further away from elbow surgery.
“Been feeling pretty good,” he said. “Feel like I’m still getting stronger. It’s been a gradual process, a lot of work. It’s still building.
“I’m pretty excited about it, really. Honestly, my second halves of my career have usually been better than the first.”
Lackey is 5-5 on the season but 4-1 in his last eight starts with an earned run average of 2.49. That has dropped his season ERA to 2.99.
Napoli played with Lackey for four seasons in Los Angeles, catching him often when the righthander was an ace on contending teams.
The Red Sox saw only occasional glimpses of that pitcher for two seasons because of the torn elbow ligament that eventually required surgery and cost Lackey the entire 2012 season.
Now that he is healthy, Lackey is only masquerading as a No. 5 starter. He’s more of a savior for a Red Sox team that has Clay Buchholz on the disabled list and has gotten one victory out of Jon Lester in the last six weeks.
“He has stepped up,” Napoli said.
It’s nothing new for Lackey. He’s been around enough good teams to know how to handle adversity.
“Jon will be fine and Clay, if healthy, obviously has done great. I’m not worried about those guys at all,” he said. “Whatever’s happening, I need to pitch well. I’ve been the guy who’s gone first on playoff teams, you know?”
Right fielder Shane Victorino said Lackey has been “very important” in keeping the Sox in first place in the American League East.
“In the last month or so, he’s feeling good about what he’s doing on the mound. He’s doing a great job,” Victorino said. “That’s the Lackey of old. I remember playing against him and facing that guy. He was dominant, as he slowed today.”
It was the second start of the season for Colorado righthander Roy Oswalt. He allowed five runs on nine hits over six innings.
The Sox scored three runs in the first inning. Jacoby Ellsbury led off with a double and scored on a single by Victorino. With one out, David Ortiz doubled to drive in Victorino.
Ortiz scored on a two-out single by Daniel Nava, who hit a ground ball up the middle that deflected off second base.
The lead grew to 5-1 in the third inning. Victorino and Dustin Pedroia singled before Ortiz walked to load the bases with no outs. Napoli’s single to right scored Victorino. Nava then delivered a sacrifice fly to center field.
The Sox finished with 10 hits, three by Victorino.
Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara each pitched an inning in relief of Lackey. For Uehara, the team’s new closer, it was his second save of the season. The Sox struck out 15 in all.
The Red Sox, 47-33 with the season one game away from the midway point, open a four-game series against Toronto Thursday night. The Blue Jays have won 12 of their last 14 games and recovered from a slow start.
“I don’t know that one series is bigger than any other at this point. But they’re playing well,” Napoli said. “But we are too. We’ve had a few bumps but we keep finding ways to win games.”