As the lazy Chase Headley fly ball hung in the air, waiting for its inevitable fate, John Lackey made his first strides toward the dugout.
Once the ball settled in right fielder Shane Victorino’s glove, Lackey knew his night’s work was done.
So did the crowd at Fenway Park.
For the first time in two years, Lackey had pitched eight dominant innings, using 103 pitches to buzz through the San Diego Padres lineup Tuesday night.
When he left the mound he was showered by a sound that for the most part had been unfamiliar in his three seasons with the Red Sox.
It was the sound of appreciation.
It wasn’t just because he fed the Padres fastballs, striking out six, and allowing just one run.
His dominance in the Red Sox’ 4-1 win continued a run in which he’s gone at least seven innings in his past four starts and held opponents to two runs or fewer in each of them.
He has been especially effective in front of the fans in Boston, with a 1.32 ERA at Fenway, as if proving with every pitch that he was better than the starter they once had booed unapologetically.
Asked whether it meant he possibly had won over some of the critics who used him as a verbal punching bag, he paused long and hard.
Four solid seconds went by.
He looked up at nothing in particular, as if he could see the words rolling around in his head.
“Um . . . ”
Five more seconds passed. When he finally decided on the thought he wanted to go with, he stuttered before letting it out.
“I, I, I, . . . I don’t know,” he said.
It was one ovation. After one start. What he understood, though, was that he and the fans wanted the same things.
“I’m going out pitching, pitching well, and I think that’s all they want to see, I guess,” he said. “So hopefully that’s enough. But having to win the fans back is . . . whatever.”
But his teammates understood just how much scrutiny Lackey has had to withstand, after signing a five-year, $82 million contract in December of 2009, going a disappointing 26-23 in two seasons, and then undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011.
“People were [expletive] and complaining about him,” said David Ortiz. “That guy wasn’t healthy. What can you do about it? Now we’re seeing the Lackey that this organization expected [him] to be. So it doesn’t surprise me what he’s doing.”
Coming off a career-high-tying 12 strikeouts in his last start, against the Rockies, Lackey set the same aggressive tone from the start against the Padres.
His first 14 pitches were all fastballs. The hardest was 95 miles per hour. The softest was 92.
In the first inning, the only Padre who managed to get a bat on it was Carlos Quentin, who fouled off a 95-m.p.h. heater before bouncing another one to shortstop to end the inning.
Otherwise, leadoff man Logan Forsythe stared at one for strike three and after watching one go by for a ball Chris Denorfia flailed at three straight.
“I kept throwing it,” Lackey said. “There’s been a lot of hard work, 18 months of rehab and work in-between starts and my arm’s feeling pretty good right now. It’s fun to let it loose a little bit and not feel anything.”
He got all the support he would need in the fourth inning, when third baseman Brandon Snyder, making his second start in as many games, came up with the bases loaded and cleared them with a double off the Monster in left-center off Padres rookie starter Robbie Erlin.
The lefty is one of the Padres’ top prospects, and through the first three innings he showed why, calmly weaving through the Red Sox lineup the first time through, giving up just three hits and a walk.
But he was facing a lineup that had been hard on rookies all year. In 12 games against rookie pitchers coming in, the Sox were 8-4 and those pitchers had an 8.19 ERA.
They made it a point to run up Erlin’s pitch count as quickly as possible.
In the fourth, Jarrod Saltalamacchia worked him for a seven-pitch walk that loaded the bases and also ran Erlin’s number of pitches to 84 with just one out in the books in the inning.
It was obvious when the Padres conferenced at the mound that Erlin was reaching his threshold. He had averaged 95 pitches in his first two starts.
“I thought we had overall an outstanding approach against Erlin,” manager John Farrell said. “Drove his pitch count up early.”
When Snyder stepped to the plate, he was facing a pitcher running on fumes and he offered no sympathy. Snyder fouled off five pitches, four with two strikes, before finally smacking a 2-and-2 fastball off the Wall to give the Sox a 3-0 lead.
“I figured he’s gonna try to beat me with his best stuff,” Snyder said. “He’s not gonna try to beat me with his breaking stuff.
“He commanded his fastball pretty well all night, he was throwing it 88-90, but locating it really well.”
Through the first four innings, Lackey notched five strikeouts. He threw just six balls in his first three innings. Of his 103 pitches, 73 were strikes.
“Establishing the fastball is always a good thing,” Lackey said. “You don’t want to — if you can — show too much too early. So you can mix things up when things get hot, guys get on base, and you get into some tough situations. Pretty much every game, you’re going to have a situation that can kind of turn the game one way or another and to be able to mix things up in those situations when you haven’t shown a whole lot is nice.”
He threw so many strikes it made him wonder if he had gone overboard.
“Honestly, there is such a thing as too many strikes,” he said. “I’ve got to look at that. When you go against a team that’s going to swing a lot, you definitely want to throw strikes, but there is such a thing as too many at times. You’ve got to be careful of that.”
But on a night when he got 13 swings and misses on his fastball, he said, “I’ve had worse problems, for sure.”