THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Frustrated Lackey is just a bit off target

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / August 30, 2010

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was for games like last night that the Red Sox awarded John Lackey a free agent contract of five years and $82.5 million. He was supposed to be a reliable, tested veteran who could handle the pressure of a pennant race and the American League East.

Perhaps next season, if he adapts to the expectations of pitching in a market such as Boston, Lackey will become that pitcher. But for now, he is one of the primary reasons the Sox have essentially fallen out of postseason contention.

Lackey could not hold a lead in the late innings and the result was a 5-3 loss against the Tampa Bay Rays. On a night where a victory could have sent the Sox off to Baltimore still with hope, Lackey left them 6 1/2 games out of first place with only 31 to play.

“When he made the mistakes, he really paid for them,’’ manager Terry Francona said.

Lackey (12-8) allowed five runs on nine hits over 6 1/3 innings. The Sox are 14-13 in games Lackey has started. He has allowed an AL-high 201 hits in 176 innings.

But in what has become a familiar refrain, Lackey was convinced he pitched better than his line in the box score will indicate.

“I’m still trying to figure it out, for sure. I felt way too good to give up five runs,’’ Lackey said. “I gave up probably three hard-hit balls all night. They pretty much maximized the damage they could get.’’

Lackey went so far to say he, “probably threw the ball as good as I’ve thrown the ball in years.’’

For five innings, that may well have been true as Lackey allowed one run on three hits and had struck out six without a walk. Five of the strikeouts were called as Lackey kept the Rays off balance.

“John had very good stuff,’’ catcher Victor Martinez said. “He was pitching well.’’

But the 3-1 lead vanished quickly in the sixth.

With one out, Ben Zobrist singled. Lackey then tried to throw a cut fastball away from Carl Crawford.

With first base occupied, Lackey went to a quick slide-step delivery. The pitched drifted back over the plate and was hammered over the fence in right field.

“I didn’t quite get the ball down and away where I needed to get it,’’ he said.

Said Rays manager Joe Maddon: “Carl put a big charge in that.’’

Evan Longoria lined the next pitch to center for a double. The Red Sox intentionally walked Carlos Pena to get to Matt Joyce, a .225 hitter who was 0 for 5 against Lackey in his career.

Lackey got ahead in the count 1 and 2 then threw three straight curveballs out of the strike zone.

“I was surprised he took some of those pitches,’’ Lackey said.

With the bases loaded, Sox-killer Dan Johnson grounded a single to center. One run scored but Lackey caught a break when Darnell McDonald threw out Pena at the plate.

Johnson had struck out in his two previous at-bats. But when Lackey left a fastball up and over he plate, he had another big hit against Boston.

“I was really getting pitched tough tonight,’’ Johnson said. “Came up there in that situation with the bases loaded and I really bared down and finally I got a pitch I thought I could do something with and found a hole with it.’’

Lackey got out of the inning and angrily fired his glove into the dugout bench. That, at least, hit the target.

After putting two runners on base with one out in the seventh, Francona lifted Lackey in favor of lefthander Hideki Okajima, who predictably allowed one of the runners he inherited to score.

Lackey acknowledged he is frustrated.

“I definitely feel like I’ve thrown the ball better than what the numbers are this year,’’ he said. “But at this point, I can’t do too much about it.’’

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

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