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On second thought, Francona taps Lackey

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — The selection of Jon Lester to start on Opening Day against Texas was an obvious one for the Red Sox and manager Terry Francona. The lefthander is one of the elite pitchers in the game.

But deciding who should follow Lester likely fostered a bit of debate. Josh Beckett, the erstwhile ace of the staff, was one possibility. So was Clay Buchholz, who pitched just as well as Lester for much of last season.

Instead it will be John Lackey, a choice that will come as a surprise to some. The righthander had an uncharacteristically high earned run average of 4.40 last season, giving up far more hits and walks than expected after being signed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal.

But the deeper Francona looked, the more Lackey made sense. So he is now lined up for the second game of the season and then the home opener against the Yankees April 8.

“I think we feel like Lack has a way of matching up with whoever he’s pitching against,’’ said Francona. “Whether it’s a guy who’s a No. 1 or No. 5, you look up in the seventh and you have a chance to win, which we really like.

“Buch did so good [last year]. I think we feel like having Buch come out third just enhances our chance to win a little bit.

“Buch’s numbers would say that he can pitch anywhere. Just think Lack’s a veteran and he’s done it. I just think spacing [Buchholz] and Lester out, there’s something to be said for that, too.’’

The faith in Lackey appeared well-founded once yesterday’s game against the Mets started. He allowed one run on five hits and one walk over 5 1/3 innings in an 8-5 victory.

Lackey has a 1.72 ERA in four spring starts. Those statistics are meaningless to a veteran pitcher, but they do speak to how comfortable Lackey seems in his second season with the Red Sox.

“I really do feel great,’’ he said. “I’m not just saying that because it sounds good.’’

That wasn’t the case a year ago. Lackey faced the Mets at City of Palms March 17, 2010, and pitched well, throwing four scoreless innings. But his goal was mainly to stay healthy after early-season injury problems with the Angels the previous two years.

Lackey cut down on his workload, pitch selection, and velocity during spring training. It worked in that he stayed healthy, but it also had some drawbacks.

“It took me a little bit longer to get to full arm strength during the season last year,’’ he said.

Once Lackey built his arm up, he found himself pitching for an injury-ravaged team that had a leaky defense and unreliable bullpen. That he won 14 games and pitched 215 innings was an accomplishment.

“I know Lack took a little bit of heat for maybe underperforming,’’ said Francona. “I don’t think we felt like that.

“He just seemed like that guy last year where he gave up runs late or somebody gave up his runs late or he made a mistake late. I just think he’s going to give you the 200 innings, and every time he pitches, you’re going to have a chance to win.

“I think he’s worked hard to get in real good shape and I think it’s going to show. I think across the board his numbers will be a little bit lower this year.’’

Lackey also impressed Francona with his reliability, taking the ball every five days while at the same time aiding his wife with some health issues.

“Believe me, there were some things going on,’’ Francona said. “He’s very accountable, and he does his job and he doesn’t care who he’s pitching to, he doesn’t care who he’s pitching against. He just takes the ball and stays out there until you take it away.’’

The Red Sox also took note of the fact that Texas rocked Beckett twice last season. He allowed 13 earned runs on 17 hits and 6 walks over 12 innings.

So instead of the defending American League champions, Beckett will get the less-fearsome Indians April 5 in Cleveland.

“Just watching the way last year unfolded, we want to get him off to a good start,’’ said Francona. “He’ll pitch in that game in Cleveland. I think that’s a good place for him to start.’’

If Beckett was dismayed at dropping from first to fourth in the rotation, he hid it well.

“I don’t get paid to make those decisions,’’ he said. “Tito makes those decisions. I don’t want that job; I’ll never want that job. I’ll let him make those decisions. I’ll go out and do the best I can to put us in a position to win.’’

The fifth starter was as simple to pick as the first. That will be the ever-confounding Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Red Sox have a day off scheduled for April 4 but will start the season with a five-man rotation.

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

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