When John Lackey walked off the mound in the seventh inning Saturday with a 5-1 lead, he was cheered just as loudly as Alex Rodriguez was booed. He deserved every bit of it. Lackey, we mean.
On a day when the pitching matchup favored the Yankees and Hiroki Kuroda, Lackey was the steadier starter.
Kuroda didn’t get any help from his defense. First baseman Lyle Overbay changed the course of the game with a throwing error in the fourth inning, turning what should’ve been an inning-ending, double-play grounder by Stephen Drew into a run-scoring play that broke a scoreless tie and set the Red Sox up for a three-run inning in what turned out to be a 6-1 victory.
“It’s nice, for sure,” said Lackey. “We needed a win today especially as a team after the last few games.”
Lackey recorded 14 ground outs in 6⅔ innings. The Yankees couldn’t build any momentum. They tried to exploit Lackey’s slow delivery to the plate by running on him early in the game, and they were successful on two of three steal attempts. But their aggressiveness also cost them as Alfonso Soriano was doubled off second base on a popup to shortstop by Curtis Granderson in the second inning.
What did Lackey do? Well, with the Red Sox risking their first four-game losing streak of the season and a sellout crowd of 37,517 wondering whether the team might be falling apart, the Sox picked up a “W” in a game many fans had pegged for an “L”. Thank Lackey for that.
It still seems odd to hear Lackey be applauded after the horrible start to his Red Sox career, including his part in the chicken and beer scheme in 2011. He spent last season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and mending his personal life, and showed up at training camp this year about 20 pounds lighter and with a new, determined attitude.
This was a big game. The Red Sox had lost three straight and six out of eight, facing a Yankees team that had found some life and is fighting for a wild-card spot. And the Sox are lined up to face CC Sabathia on Sunday night, and we know how much trouble lefties have given them lately.
Yes, this was a big-time performance.
The second inning could have gotten away from Lackey.
He allowed a leadoff single to Soriano, who stole second base. He walked A-Rod. But then Granderson’s popup to short center was caught by Drew and he quickly threw to second base to double up Soriano, who strangely wandered too far from the bag. Poor base running by Soriano, but also a heads-up play by Drew. Even though Lackey then walked Eduardo Nunez and allowed a single to Overbay to load the bases, he got one of his few fly outs at precisely the right time, retiring Chris Stewart. That’s exactly what Lackey was looking for, something in the air rather than something on the ground that might have seen its way through the infield.
Another big moment for Lackey came in the fourth. Again, Soriano led off with a single to center, but this time he was caught stealing on a nice throw by Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Lackey then struck out A-Rod, much to the crowd’s pleasure. But Granderson singled and stole second base to set up another scoring chance. But Lackey nipped it when he induced one of five tappers back to the mound, which he converted into the third out.
The Yankees had two runners in scoring position with nobody out in the fifth after Overbay’s single and Stewart’s ground-rule double, but Lackey responded with three ground outs, though one produced a Yankee run.
“Try to minimize that with one run especially after the guys got me three runs,” Lackey said. “You don’t want to give it right back.”
Lackey’s day against A-Rod (walk, strikeout, and ground out to second on a brilliant play by Dustin Pedroia) was also fitting.
On Thursday, Lackey discussed A-Rod’s ability to play while he appeals a 211-game ban as a result of his role in the Biogenesis case. “I’ve got a problem with it. You bet I do,” Lackey told the Globe. “How is he still playing? He obviously did something and he’s playing. I’m not sure that’s right . . . It’s pretty evident he’s been doing stuff for a lot of years I’ve been facing him.”
A-Rod wasn’t able to get his revenge on Lackey and Lackey neutralized him.
“We’re just trying to win a game; he was just as important as any other guy,” Lackey said.
Lackey got his reward in the seventh when he was cheered off the mound just as loudly as A-Rod was booed all day on the field.
Lackey didn’t acknowledge the ovation. He didn’t tip his cap. Why?
“I guess I was just more focused on my teammates and shaking those guys’ hands,” he said.
A big-time performance in a big-time situation.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.