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Lackey lacked location on fastball

Red Sox starter John Lackey holds up the baseball and takes a deep breath during an outing in which he gave up nine hits and eight runs in 3 1/3 innings. Red Sox starter John Lackey holds up the baseball and takes a deep breath during an outing in which he gave up nine hits and eight runs in 3 1/3 innings. (Matthew J. Lee/ Globe Staff)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / April 20, 2010

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One can of Red Bull wasn’t enough for John Lackey, who drew the Patriots Day start against the Tampa Bay Rays. The righthander had one in each hand yesterday morning, seeking as much caffeine as legally allowed before he started warming up.

Baseball players are usually just rolling out of bed at 11:07 a.m., not standing on the mound waiting to throw a pitch.

Lackey claimed the time of the game didn’t bother him. But something was wrong as he allowed eight runs on nine hits and couldn’t make it out of the fourth inning in an 8-2 loss to the Rays.

It wasn’t the worst performance of Lackey’s career. That came in 2008, when he gave up 10 runs on 12 hits to the Rangers and was on the bench before the end of the third inning. But it was one of only six times he has allowed eight earned runs.

The timing was bad, too. With the Red Sox having lost four straight, Lackey planned to be the stopper. Instead, he added to the misery and dropped his new team six games out of first place in the American League East.

“It was an opportunity and obviously I didn’t get it done,’’ he said.

Lackey (1-1) had been close to brilliant in his first two starts, allowing two runs over 12 2/3 innings. Of all the free agents the Red Sox signed in the winter, Lackey had been by far the most successful early in the season.

But with Sox trailing, 1-0, in the third inning, Lackey faced Evan Longoria with two outs and two on. His 1-and-1 pitch was a fastball over the heart of the plate that Longoria drove to the gap in left for a double.

Two runs scored. Lackey then walked Carlos Pena before B.J. Upton essentially ended the game with a home run into the Sox bullpen.

“I was one pitch away from getting out of that inning with no runs. You have to find out a way to make a pitch and get out of there,’’ Lackey said. “Giving up that many runs with two outs is kind of unacceptable.’’

A double by Reid Brignac and a triple by Jason Bartlett drove Lackey off the mound in the fourth inning.

“Fastball location wasn’t there. I was hitting the white part of the plate quite often. It’s not good,’’ Lackey said. “I definitely put myself behind and didn’t execute like I need to.’’

Much like the Red Sox, there was a time Lackey never had to worry much about beating the Rays. He won seven consecutive starts against Tampa Bay from 2004-08.

But, again like the Sox, that has changed. Last June 10, while pitching for the Angels, Lackey allowed nine runs over five innings against the Rays. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, the former Angels bench coach, knows Lackey well and had his players keying on his fastball. Of the nine hits Lackey allowed, all but two came off that pitch.

“I’ve known Joe forever,’’ Lackey said. “They kind of play a similar game that I’ve been playing for a lot of years. I knew what to expect. Nothing was a surprise, I just didn’t execute.’’

Said Sox manager Terry Francona: “He was up with a lot of fastballs and he paid the price. There were some balls that fell in front of our outfielders; there were some balls that went over our outfielders. It’s one of those days where there’s a lot of hits.’’

The Sox signed Lackey believing he would be the final piece of a formidable rotation. But that quintet is 3-5 with a 5.18 ERA through 13 games and has allowed 87 hits over 73 innings.

“We’ve got several guys who can end losing streaks. Then again, it’s pretty early in the season,’’ Lackey said. “We’ll get on a little run here eventually, for sure.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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