John Lackey walked slowly off the mound in the eighth inning Monday afternoon, headed for the dugout and another painful loss. The sold-out crowd at Fenway Park stood and applauded as he crossed the foul line.
Cheering the starter as he leaves the game sometimes is perfunctory. But this ovation had some genuine appreciation behind it. Red Sox fans haven’t always had the best relationship with Lackey, but they understand what he has been going through this season.
The Detroit Tigers beat the Red Sox, 3-0, hanging another tough loss on Lackey. The Red Sox have been shut out 11 times this season, six times with Lackey on the mound.
Lackey has received an average of 3.77 runs per nine innings in his starts. The other regular starters — Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront, Jon Lester, and Jake Peavy — get an average of 5.87 runs.
If you choose to believe Lackey’s 8-12 record is somehow indicative of how he has pitched, know that he easily could have 14 or 15 wins.
“Honestly this is about as good as I’ve ever pitched,” Lackey said. “I’m probably better now than I ever have been.”
The statistics bear that out. Lackey’s 3.22 earned run average is 12th in the American League and his WHIP of 1.17 is 11th. Lackey is averaging 7.71 strikeouts per nine innings and is sixth in the league in walk-to-strikeout ratio.
This level of production has come from a 34-year-old pitcher who missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Lackey can take some positives out of that, surely.
“I’m trying,” he said. “Trying hard.”
Lackey then started laughing.
“It’s a great group of guys and guys who get after it,” he said. “Just because we don’t score, it’s definitely not a lack of effort. The boys want to give me some runs. They feel pretty bad about it. After games I get a lot of, ‘Nice job, our bad,’ and that kind of stuff.”
Third baseman Will Middlebrooks said it’s not a topic the hitters discuss much.
“I think we all feel bad it has happened that way. It’s just a weird thing,” he said. “It’s not like we can have a meeting and decide to score runs for him. We want to score runs every day.”
The Sox had a three-game win streak snapped and are now 1-4 against the Tigers this season. The teams have the two best records in the league and could meet again in October.
Doug Fister (12-7) and three relievers held the Sox to six hits. The Sox also drew four walks but were for 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position. Daniel Nava was 3 for 3, the rest of the hitters 3 for 27.
Fister put the first two runners on in the first and second innings and got double plays to escape both times.
Lackey worked out of jams, too. Prince Fielder doubled to start the fourth inning and took third on a wild pitch. Lackey then retired Victor Martinez, Andy Dirks, and Omar Infante and walked off the mound with a raised fist.
“When it’s a 0-0 game everything is magnified,” Lackey said. “Everything gets amped up a little bit. I was able to make some pitches and get out of those situations. A couple of guys made some nice plays for me on some balls.”
With Martinez on first in the seventh, Dirks drove a cutter to the triangle in center. Because the Sox were playing Dirks to go the other way, Jacoby Ellsbury could not catch up to the ball.
“Maybe if we’re playing him straight up or [to pull] Ellsbury probably gets to that ball because he almost got to it playing the other way,” Lackey said.
Dirks scored when Don Kelly grounded into a double play.
The Sox had another chance against Fister in the seventh. But with runners on first and second, power-hitting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was told to bunt and the result was a rally-killing out at third base.
Lackey left the game with runners on the corners in the eighth inning. Fielder’s sacrifice fly off Matt Thornton made it 3-0.
Lackey was charged with three runs on seven hits. He walked one and struck out five.
Lackey said he didn’t hear the crowd as he came off the mound.
“I was a little too angry to hear anything at that point,” he said.
Manager John Farrell isn’t worried about all the frustration taking a toll.
“John’s a pro. He understands the game. I’m sure there’s been other times in his career when he might be on the receiving end of low run support compared to other guys in the rotation,” Farrell said. “This isn’t going to affect his work or cause him to try to do any more. I think that’s evident by the entire body of work over the course of the year.
“It’s one of those things in baseball. You have no control over it and yet, to his credit, he goes out and maintains his focus and continues to battle all the way through to the end.”