THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Numbers becoming numbing

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / July 5, 2011

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John Lackey once led the American League in earned run average.

John Lackey once won 19 games.

John Lackey once gave up a leadoff double and then retired 27 Oakland A’s in succession, a performance that came in the middle of a stretch in which he threw 30 2/3 scoreless innings.

John Lackey once pitched and won a World Series Game 7.

John Lackey once was deemed worthy of a five-year, $82.5 million contract by the Boston Red Sox, who certainly were not bidding against themselves when they made the offer.

Where has that guy gone?

“I thought the breaking ball he had the other night wasn’t there today,’’ declared manager Terry Francona after watching Lackey slog through 2 1/3 disturbing innings in yesterday’s 9-7 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park.

Lackey faced 16 batters. Nine had base hits (none cheap) and another hit a fly ball to the deepest part of left-center field. By the time the skipper came to the mound and asked for the baseball from the big righthander, the Sox were trailing, 7-0, with a man standing on second. Lackey’s ERA, which was bad enough when the game began (6.81), escalated more than half a run in fewer than three innings. It’s now standing at a dizzying 7.47. Even scarier, his 2011 Fenway ERA is a you-must-be kidding-me 9.17.

The Red Sox would come back to make an honest enough game of it to keep the crowd of 38,072 hanging around till the 217th minute of a typically endless American League affair, but the serious damage had been done a couple of hours before.

“We had a chance, but it’s tough when they score early and then add on,’’ noted Francona.

It’s not as if Lackey is utterly hopeless. Every once in a while he is actually a pretty good major league pitcher. I mean, if you were Terry Francona, you would take that game he threw in Philadelphia last Wednesday every time out for the rest of the season and take your chances. He threw 7 2/3 strong innings, with the big blow a home run by Raul Ibanez on a ball heading for his right instep. Sometimes stuff just happens.

But was that John Lackey really being a solid major league pitcher that night, or was he just impersonating one? In his 1 1/2 years as a member of the Red Sox, Lackey has been unable to sustain success.

He has made 31 Fenway starts. He has given up five or more earned runs 11 times. Better than one out of three? Yup. And it’s getting worse. Yesterday’s outing was the sixth time he’s given up five or more earned runs in 13 starts this season. His next scheduled start is Saturday night against the Orioles. If you’re a ticket holder, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

But it’s really not funny. It’s a gigantic hole in the middle of a starting rotation that really needs to get to the All-Star break without something disastrous taking place. No one knows when we’ll next see Clay Buchholz, who is being sent to North Carolina for further examination of his back, and who, according to the manager, won’t be sent out there “until we know he’s not hurting himself.’’

Meanwhile, what do you say in a circumstance such as this, when a guy in whom you have invested an enormous sum of money, and who arrived with the reputation of being both a talented pitcher and a highly competitive one, has presented himself in such a horrendous manner? There really is no way to exaggerate how big a catch Lackey was supposed to be.

Here is what respected Baseball Prospectus had to say on the subject of Lackey’s impending free agency at the conclusion of the 2009 season: “Lackey stands alone as one of the best, a relatively young righty who carries significantly less risk than the other high-upside hurlers.’’

Now in all fairness to the guy, we know two things about him. The first is that he was on the disabled list earlier this season with an elbow ailment. The second is that he has been dealing with a medical issue involving his wife. Five weeks ago he did tell us that, “everything in my life just sucks right now.’’ Were we remiss in assuming that was a hyperbolic throwaway line?

There’s no reason to think Lackey isn’t trying, or that he doesn’t want to succeed. He’s been to baseball’s mountaintop. You’d like to think he would like to get there again.

Now he was something of an excuse-maker last season. He’s also not very good at masking his emotions when his defense is unable to make a play. That’s between him and his teammates. But more often than not this year he sounds confused and mystified, as if he honestly cannot understand why the ball won’t do what he tells it to do.

Lackey’s postgame sessions can be painful, but he offered no alibis for yesterday.

“Nothing,’’ he said. “No excuse. [There was] nothing to keep me from pitching.’’

He has become the ultimate Mystery Guest when he takes the mound, especially at Fenway. A 9.17 ERA in his home ballpark speaks rather eloquently.

As recently as two years ago, John Lackey was an honored and respected pitcher. Now his numbers identify him as the worst starter in major league baseball. Baseball Prospectus probably would like a do-over. Theo, too.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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