The Red Sox are back in the postseason for the first time since 2009. That John Lackey pitched his best game of the season on the night they clinched a spot was certainly appropriate.
Lackey was the one of the pitchers who struggled in the final weeks of the painful 2011 season, taking the mound every five days despite a torn elbow ligament.
Surgery forced him to miss the 2012 season, and Lackey watched helplessly as the Sox finished in last place. He was one of the symbols of everything that had gone wrong.
On Thursday night, that seemed so long ago when the crowd at Fenway Park chanted Lackey’s name as he stood on the mound in the ninth inning, a pitch away from finishing a complete game.
“It’s nice,” said Lackey, who went the distance in a 3-1 victory against the Baltimore Orioles. “To be a part of going to the playoffs, there was a lot of hard work getting back to this point.
“To be back here and to be pitching and pitching well again and being healthy. It’s fun.”
At 93-61, the Red Sox have secured no worse than a wild-card berth. With Tampa Bay losing against Texas, the Red Sox need only one victory or one Rays loss to clinch their first American League East title since 2007.
The Sox are saving their champagne celebration until that moment, which could be Friday. Lackey simply hugged catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, then lined up to shake hands with his teammates.
“The remake of John Lackey, both physically and getting back on the mound and performing as he’s done all year, mirrors that of this team,” said John Farrell, the manager who led the Sox out of the dark. “It’s been a remake.”
Lackey (10-12) carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning. He settled for a two-hitter. The righthander walked two and struck out eight. Of his 113 pitches, 82 were strikes.
It was Lackey’s first nine-inning complete game since Sept. 10, 2009, when he was with the Angels. He dropped his earned run average to 3.44 — 2.47 in 13 starts at Fenway.
“I don’t think there’s anything to that. It’s obviously fun pitching here, especially at the end of the game tonight. The fans get on their feet and you kind of get that playoff atmosphere,” Lackey said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s why you come to a place like this.”
Lackey had thrown only 77 pitches into the seventh inning. The only Orioles to reach base were on walks.
With the Sox in a defensive shift, Chris Davis grounded to the right side of the infield and Will Middlebrooks was there to make the play. Lackey was eight outs from making history.
“I was locating my fastball and had a little bit on it. My arm felt good,” he said.
Lackey threw a cutter to Adam Jones that stayed in the center of the plate. The center fielder sent the ball soaring over everything in left field for his 32d home run.
Lackey took a brief stroll around the mound then struck out Nick Markakis before getting Danny Valencia to ground to shortstop. Losing the no-hitter, Lackey said, was not crushing.
“Nah. We were just trying to win the game,” he said. “Especially in a 3-0 game, you can’t get too far ahead of yourself.”
J.J. Hardy singled with one out in the eighth inning, which brought the tying run to the plate. But Lackey got Brian Roberts on a fly ball to center and Nate McLouth on a grounder to second.
“Tonight as far as fastball command, keeping the ball down in the zone, that was his best game,” Saltalamacchia said.
The ninth inning was a quick one, and the game ended in 2 hours and 18 minutes.
“It had the makings of something special. But in the end it was still special given the significance of tonight’s win and the fact that he goes a complete game,” Farrell said.
Baltimore starter Chris Tillman was 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA in four starts against the Red Sox earlier this season.
But before the second inning was over, the Red Sox had scored three runs on five hits — four of them for extra bases — and forced Tillman to throw 53 pitches.
The first inning was frustrating. Dustin Pedroia led off with a double to right field and took third when Daniel Nava grounded out. David Ortiz then drew a walk.
But Tillman struck out Mike Napoli and got Mike Carp to line to left field.
The Red Sox were 1 for 14 with runners in scoring position in the series to that point. They finally broke through in the second inning.
Saltalamacchia doubled to right field. With one out, Stephen Drew sent a cutter over the wall in left field for his 13th home run.
“Trying to be aggressive early in the count, looking for a pitch I could drive,” Drew said.
Jackie Bradley Jr., 3 for 21 since being recalled from Triple A Pawtucket, doubled the opposite way when he sent a ball down the line in left.
When Pedroia singled to right field, Bradley got a poor read on the ball and was slow on his break from second. But he raced around to score.
Tillman didn’t allow another run over his seven innings. But the Sox had enough.
“We were able to bunch some hits together,” Farrell said. “He left his curveball up in the zone a couple of times. We didn’t miss pitches when they were up in the strike zone.”
The Sox have won 11 of their last 15 games and have the best record in baseball with eight games to go.
Jon Lester faces Toronto on Friday.
“We still have some other goals ahead of us. Hopefully in the next night or two we can get a party going,” Lackey said.