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Sox offense takes burden off Lackey

By Nicole Auerbach
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2011

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John Lackey doesn’t mind sitting on the bench - not when he’s watching the Red Sox’ explosive offense go to work on his behalf.

Some of the Sox’ half-innings have lasted quite a while. Last night, Royals lefthander Bruce Chen threw 34 pitches in the bottom of the first, 33 in the second, and 35 in the fourth. Long at-bats, lots of hits, plenty of visits by coaches - it all adds up, and it’s all good for the Red Sox.

“I don’t think anybody will complain about hanging around watching guys score runs,’’ Lackey said with a laugh. “We’ve got some guys that can really swing. It’s fun to watch for sure.

“As a pitcher, you’re OK with sitting over there for some extra-long half-innings to watch that and get a lot of run support.’’

It certainly makes a pitcher’s life easier.

In the first, the Sox scored two runs after Lackey surrendered three in the top of the inning. In the second, they put up three. In the fourth, they put the game out of reach with five. And Lackey could breathe easy, improving to 9-8 and dropping his ERA to 6.20 as the Sox cruised to a 12-5 win at Fenway Park.

“We started out the game, and you’re down three,’’ Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “That’s not an easy way to play, but we came right back. It’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got a long way to go. We’re OK.’ ’’

That feeling of relief washed over Lackey, too, who gave up just one run after the shaky first inning and pitched into the sixth.

Lackey has won his last four starts, giving up seven earned runs and 32 hits in 25 innings (2.52 ERA). He has also walked three and struck out 21 during that span.

“He’s pitching a lot more consistently,’’ Francona said. “[Last night] the pitch count was kind of high, but he threw all of his pitches for strikes. He threw his fastball by some people. He could elevate it at times. He threw his breaking ball for strikes.’’

Lackey said he thinks the key to his recent success is one pitch: his fastball.

“My arm strength has been better, and I’ve had a little more life on the fastball,’’ Lackey said. “Everything kind of works off that, so you definitely need to locate that first.’’

That fastball got a bit of a workout last night during Lackey’s 113-pitch outing. Because the Sox offense gave Lackey such a large cushion to work with, the righthander said he could change his strategy of attacking batters. And that meant fastballs.

“Later in the game, once I got 10 runs or so, I probably threw more fastballs than I would in a close game,’’ Lackey said. “Like a 3-1 pitch I threw to [Jeff] Francoeur, I threw a fastball. In a close game, I’m probably throwing a cutter.’’

Lackey’s fastball to Francouer resulted in a fifth-inning double. Like most of the 11 hits Lackey surrendered last night, it didn’t drive in or create a run. All of the Royals’ scoring off Lackey came on two homers - a three-run shot by Eric Hosmer in the first and a solo blast by Billy Butler in the fifth.

Francona said Lackey settled down after the first inning, and despite giving up seven hits over his final 4 2/3 innings, Lackey did appear to have good control over all of his pitches. He retired eight straight batters from the second through the fourth innings.

“I’m a little surprised that as well as he’s throwing, that guys are able to put the ball out there and score some runs off him,’’ catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “The guy, to me, looks great.’’

To Lackey, the offense looks great. And that’s making his job a whole lot less stressful.

He’ll take it.

Nicole Auerbach can be reached at nauerbach@globe.com.

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