Box scores are like the Cliffs Notes version of a player’s performance. They don’t always accurately reflect the subtleties or circumstances of a complex novel or a complex game.
The story of John Lackey’s day on the mound on Saturday at Fenway Park could not be told by the numbers next to his name in the box score — 6⅓ innings, 10 hits, 4 runs, 4 earned runs, 7 strikeouts, no walks.
The deceptive digits he was tagged with said this technically wasn’t a quality start. But any of the 37,601 in attendance for the Red Sox’ 5-2 loss to the New York Yankees would attest that Lackey’s performance was of high quality.
Lackey was locked in a staredown with Yankees righthander Hiroki Kuroda, who took both a shutout and a stretch of 18 consecutive scoreless inning into the seventh inning. Lackey blinked first and, with the Sox running into outs on the bases like blind men, that was enough.
Those with eyes wide open recognized that this start wasn’t all that different from the previous six Lackey had, in which he had allowed two or fewer earned runs and gone at least seven innings. Both of those notable streaks are over now. But Lackey’s mound mastery isn’t.
Lackey’s day was a microcosm of his season and the current state of the Red Sox. The margin for error is slimmer than before. Despite sporting a 2.95 ERA, Lackey, who lost at Fenway for the first time since May 9, is just 7-7 this season.
With Clay Buchholz no closer to returning from his mysterious neck/shoulder ailment and the announcement Saturday that Jon Lester, searching to rediscover the form he displayed in a 6-0 start, was being pushed back from Sunday to Tuesday for extra rest, Lackey is stabilizing a shaky rotation.
Don’t look now, but as well as the Red Sox have played through 99 games they’re only 1½ games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays, who are charging like they play in Pamplona, not St. Petersburg, Fla. The Maddon Men have won 12 of 13 and 19 of 23. They arrive in the Fens for a four-game series on Monday.
Lackey’s next start should come in the final game of that series, and — unimaginable before the season — we are glad each and every time Lackey takes the ball.
After missing all of 2012 because of Tommy John elbow surgery, Lackey has undergone a transformation. He has remade his body and his image. He’s reliable, rootable, and even risible.
He had a great quip when asked if the 90-degree heat had sapped his energy in the later stages of his start.
“I’m not going to talk about the heat, man. I’m from Texas. I’ve played football in worse than that,” said Lackey.
When he left with one out in the seventh, trailing, 2-0, with runners on first and second, he got a standing ovation from a crowd that would have heckled him for a similar departure a few years ago.
It is as if John Derran Lackey has stepped into a baseball DeLorean and gone back in time to his days with the Angels. He is a staff ace again, even if he’s reluctant to admit it.
“It’s not something I’m going to back away from if it needs to happen,” said Lackey. “But . . . the rest of the guys on our staff are really good. They’re going to be just fine.”
The lineup Lackey faced was far from vintage Bronx Bombers, but the game was a classic pitchers’ duel.
The Yankees broke a scoreless tie in the fifth. Luis Cruz reached on a fielder’s choice when Stephen Drew cut down Eduardo Nunez at home plate. He advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on a two-out single by Brett Gardner.
The ball was just out of the reach of a diving Dustin Pedroia. We might have to retire the term “diving” because it’s redundant with the dirt-seeking second baseman.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox had just one hit off Kuroda (seven innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 4 strikeouts, 1 walk) before Mike Carp and Jonny Gomes started the bottom of the fifth with back-to-back singles.
That inning ended the same way as the first — with a Red Sox runner getting thrown out at home. With Jose Iglesias at the plate, Carp tried to score on a pitch that got past Yankees catcher Chris Stewart, but Stewart’s throw to Kuroda at home was in time. Daniel Nava was gunned down by Vernon Wells to end the first on a David Ortiz single.
Still, Lackey got out of the sixth with the Sox down just 1-0.
He clapped his hand into his glove enthusiastically as he walked off the mound after striking out Travis Hafner looking on a 92-mile-per-hour fastball, clawing back from a 3-0 count. Following Lyle Overbay’s one-out double, Lackey ended the sixth with back-to-back Ks.
“He is a [heck] of a competitor, and a guy with very good stuff,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “I thought again today there were a number of 3-2 counts, and he would regroup and make a key pitch to get a key strikeout. It’s his experience, and now that he’s completely healthy he has a lot of weapons that he can go to.”
Lackey departed trailing, 2-0, in the seventh, chased by back-to-back singles by Cruz, who drove home Nunez, and Gardner.
Lefty Matt Thornton relieved Lackey and promptly put Kerosene on Lackey’s final pitching line. Thornton allowed an RBI single to Robinson Cano and a run-scoring Wall-ball single to Overbay, both runs charged to Lackey.
The numbers were able to spin their web of deception about how Lackey had pitched.
The truth is that Lackey pitched like an ace yet again.