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Lackey has tenuous grip

ERA balloons to MLB-worst 7.36

John Lackey shows his frustration with giving up four runs in the fourth inning yesterday. John Lackey shows his frustration with giving up four runs in the fourth inning yesterday. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 23, 2011

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What a rough season for John Lackey.

When it looks as if it is getting better — with three straight wins after coming off the disabled list June 5, including an eight-inning effort against Milwaukee last weekend — he comes up with a stinker yesterday.

All we can go by are the results on the field and the way he explains them.

In the fourth inning of yesterday’s 5-1 loss to San Diego, he looked discombobulated, having obvious problems with the rainy conditions and his grip on the baseball.

He hit two batters — one with the bases loaded — walked two others — one with the bases loaded — and threw a wild pitch, also with the bases loaded.

What we know is that, statistically, he is the worst pitcher in Major League Baseball with a 7.36 ERA. Although the Cubs’ Casey Coleman is higher at 7.78 in 10 games (eight starts), he is now pitching for Triple A Iowa.

Yesterday’s elements were bad for Padres lefty Clayton Richard as well, but he allowed just one run in five innings, while Lackey (5-6) gave up five in 3 1/3.

Asked about the conditions, Lackey said, “They weren’t great.’’

Asked if that affected the way he pitched, he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever hit anyone with the bases loaded.’’

Lackey is supposed to be the innings-eater who keeps the Sox in games, but he has managed only three quality starts in 11 this year — not exactly what you’re looking for from a pitcher earning an average of a whopping $17 million for the next (yes) four years.

(And, yes, players generally get upset when their salaries are mentioned as a function of their performance.)

Logic tells us a veteran with his track record will turn things around. His three-game winning streak did not include a quality start, but he definitely pitched better.

In the 10-4 win against Milwaukee, he threw a season-high 81 strikes and didn’t walk a batter for the first time in an outing of eight or more innings since Sept. 5, 2009.

Lackey had his best spell from April 19-30, when he made three quality starts and allowed two or fewer runs — but that was almost two months ago.

Yesterday’s outing seemed doomed from the start.

First batter, Will Venable, homered to right on a 2-and-2 count. Lackey said it was “a cutter I left over the plate, for sure. You know, leadoff hitter. What are you going to do?’’

Asked how difficult it was to get a grip on the baseball in the fourth inning, Lackey said, “You guys are gonna write what you’re gonna write. Whatever.’’

That was the end of the interview.

Whatever.

These are frustrating times for Lackey. The last thing he needed was to pitch through a couple of rain delays.

“He went back out after the rain delay [in the third inning] and looked like he lost his feel,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “It didn’t look like the conditions were good for either pitcher. He lost his command and it cost us some runs.’’

When Francona was asked whether Lackey had lost his grip because of the wet ball, he said, “When I take him out, that’s not what I ask. He obviously didn’t have a very good feel. He hit a lefty with a breaking ball and he was scattering some pitches.’’

The fourth inning began with a walk to Orlando Hudson, then Lackey hit Anthony Rizzo. After Cameron Maybin beat out a bunt for a hit, Nick Hundley struck out.

But Venable drew a bases-loaded walk, Jason Bartlett was hit with a pitch to force in another run, and a wild pitch allowed a third run to score. When Chase Headley singled in the fourth run of the inning, Francona came out to get his pitcher.

The Sox dropped two of three to the lowly Padres and have allowed the Yankees to stay close in the AL East race. This is the first time in a while that two straight shaky outings by starters have cost the Sox.

They now embark on a nine-game trip to three National League cities — Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Houston — where they could do some damage if their pitching holds up.

While Alfredo Aceves has been a strong contributor, his outing Tuesday in place of the sick Josh Beckett wasn’t on a par with his past performances. Lackey didn’t give the Sox the boost they thought they would get with him on a good streak.

Now Beckett’s scheduled start Saturday vs. Pittsburgh is in question because he’s still feeling ill.

Time for one of those deep breaths. Not the gasp you heard from the Sox yesterday.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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