John Lackey’s stellar performance in Tuesday night’s 7-4 win over Tampa Bay was significant in that over the first month of the season, Boston’s rotation has been helter-skelter.
Red Sox starters ranked 22d in the majors with an 8-11 record and a 4.33 ERA, and 25th in WHIP (1.44). Lackey has had an unbalanced season. The righthander’s had a couple of good starts, a couple of stinkers, and now back-to-back terrific outings.
The Red Sox are 4-2 in his starts, the team’s best record for any starter.
If the rotation can find some consistency — specifically Felix Doubront — then the Sox have a chance to start moving up the American League East ladder.
The Rays have pitching issues, as do the first-place Yankees. Ivan Nova underwent Tommy John surgery and Michael Pineda is scheduled for an MRI because of a muscle pull in his back. The currently suspended righthander is likely to miss more time. The Blue Jays’ pitching staff is razor thin. The Orioles’ group is OK, but not great.
The Red Sox have the healthiest rotation. There’s been no need for an emergency starter, and while that sounds like a shallow victory, it’s important in light of the depth issues around the division.
Eventually, that health will result in deeper outings, more quality starts, and ultimately, more wins. When you don’t have to worry about using a spot starter or raiding your minor leagues for depth, that usually translates into a very good season. Such was the case in 2004, 2007, and 2013.
Last season the Red Sox were able to get by for three months without Clay Buchholz. They acquired Jake Peavy at the trade deadline to keep things flowing.
While Buchholz might have straightened out in Toronto Saturday, the team needs to see that same turnaround from Doubront.
Though there have been no hints about Doubront losing his job, he can’t go too much longer without a strong start.
Allen Webster, Rubby de La Rosa, and Brandon Workman are waiting for an opening in the rotation. The big club would like to keep them on the farm for now.
Here’s the other thing Lackey did — he set the tone.
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon told his team in spring training they needed to play better against the Red Sox. The Rays won only seven of the 19 meetings, then lost to the Sox in the playoffs in 2013.
Lackey made sure the Red Sox started the 2014 season series with a win.
Because Lackey pitched so well, the offensive offshoots developed. Jackie Bradley had a pair of doubles and two RBIs. Shane Victorino had four hits and two RBIs. A.J. Pierzynski had two hits, including a tie-breaking single. Will Middlebrooks had a big RBI double.
This was the recipe Farrell won blue ribbons with last season. As always, it starts with pitching.
Which is why Farrell views the starting pitcher as his quarterback.
That’s because he looks for the starting pitcher to set the tone and be the leader on the field. He wants the starting pitcher to get things off on the right track, keep his team in the game.
This was missing at Fenway Park early on as the Red Sox won only five of their first 13 games at home.
Lackey’s QB rating on a cold night at Fenway was pretty high. Maybe not perfect, but enough to get the job done effectively — eight innings, two runs, six hits, one walk, five strikeouts.
Lackey came out firing with two strikeouts and a 1-2-3 first inning. This is the tone Farrell was talking about.
If Rays journeyman Erik Bedard didn’t match him for five innings, Lackey may have cruised. Not that it mattered in the end, as the Red Sox got Bedard’s pitch count over 100 and he was out of the game after five innings in a 1-1 game.
The 13-14 Red Sox had the benefit of penetrating the taxed Tampa bullpen, which has had to extend with three-fifths of the rotation out.
The Red Sox broke the game open with five runs in the sixth inning in dominating a Rays team that looks every bit as ugly as their 11-16 record suggests.
Lackey looked like he might buckle in the fifth when James Loney led off with a double to left, but he stranded the runner.
Lackey said he did what he’s done all year. He set an aggressive tone from the outset.
“I try to be aggressive, work fast. It was cold out there, probably the worst conditions we’ve faced,’’ he said. “I’m trying to get guys in the dugout. It wasn’t fun on the field today. Bedard threw the ball really great but we were able to scratch a few runs across in the sixth.’’
He added that even when he had back-to-back poor starts, “I haven’t changed my approach. I’m aggressive. I throw a lot of strikes. I try to get outs as quick as I can.”
As the game went on, Lackey started to discover his slider, a pitch he had trouble feeling because of the cold earlier in the game.
And that got him through the late stages of his outing.
“The slider was probably the toughest pitch to throw in the cold,” Lackey said. “The ball feels like a cue ball when it’s cold. You can’t feel the seams.”
Lackey also seems to be on the same wave length as catcher Pierzynski.
“It was pretty easy for him tonight,” Lackey said. “I’ve faced [Pierzynski] so many times over the years that he knows what I do and what I had. It was easy to get on the same page and we’ve worked well together.”
Farrell has lauded Lackey’s ability to set the tone early in games. And Tuesday night was no different.
“He was outstanding,” Farrell said. “He gave us a chance for the offense to get untracked. He made great pitches after Loney doubled and stranded him. He went through eight strong innings.”
The Red Sox have had a few hiccups in the first month of the season, but the biggest one they have to remedy is converting a healthy rotation into a productive one.
Lackey did his part.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.