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Might Feel Weird, but is John Lackey the Red Sox' Ace?

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Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

John Lackey, the new ace of the Red Sox staff? That title might not roll easily off the tongue or through the mind, given his checkered history with the team. And it might be a bit premature to bestow the title on him or to take it away from the team’s de facto ace Jon Lester (despite the left-hander’s 2-4 record).

But give it a try. It’s worthy of consideration.

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In his superb performance against the Rays at Fenway Park Tuesday night, Lackey earned the win, as the Sox beat the Rays, 7-4. He improved to 4-2, lowering his ERA from 4.22 to 3.83. He went eight innings, giving up two runs on six hits and a walk with five strikeouts.

In his last two starts, he has pitched two gems, going a combined 16 innings, allowing three runs on 13 hits and a walk with 16 strikeouts. It was the first time in a Red Sox uniform Lackey has worked at least eight innings in consecutive games, and seventh time in his career. That last time he did so was Aug. 30 and Sept. 19, 2009, while with the Angels. He has struck out at least five batters in each of his six starts, his longest such streak to start a season.

All four of Lackey’s wins this season have come after Red Sox losses. He is 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA in his last two outings. Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation, in its last two turns is a combined 2-4 with a 5.65 ERA.

Lackey’s last two outings come after two poor outings, when he went a combined 11 innings, giving up 12 runs on 20 hits with four walks and 12 strikeouts, giving up a career-high four home runs at Yankee Stadium on April 12. It was the first time in his career he has allowed 10 or more hits in consecutive games.

Against the Rays Tuesday night at Fenway, Lackey was matched early in the game by Rays starter Erik Bedard. But Sox batters were able to drive the lefty’s pitch count up early, knocking him out of the game after 104 pitches over five innings with the score tied, 1-1.

Manager John Farrell relies on his starting pitchers to set the tone in the game. Lackey did just that. On a cold, raw night, he cruised early, facing one batter over the minimum through the first four innings. Although he worked behind in the count often – just five first-pitch strikes to the first 13 batters – he was in control.

“I try to be aggressive,” he said. “I try to work fast. I want guys, especially when it’s cold out, I’m trying to get guys in the dugout. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun out there, so I was just trying to work quick and try to get outs as quick as I could.

“Tonight was probably the worst that [the weather has] been, honestly, as far as feeling the baseball, being cold out there.”

In a scoreless game, it appeared the Rays were mounting a threat in the fifth when James Loney led off with a double and David DeJesus worked a one-out walk. But Lackey retired Yunel Escobar on a fly out and Ryan Hanigan struck out.

“He was outstanding once again,” said manager John Farrell. “He gave us a chance for the offense to get on track, made some big pitches after the lead-off double by Loney in the fifth to leave him stranded.

“Once again he goes through eight strong innings tonight. So a very solid outing once again by John.”

Two of Lackey’s five strikeouts came on sliders – Hanigan to end the fifth, and Matt Joyce to end the first. Comparing the baseball to a cue ball early in the game, it was a pitch Lackey was able to get a better feel for as the game went on.

“Honestly, early on it wasn’t very good,” he said. “I kind of found as the game went along, it got a little better as the game went along. The slider’s probably the toughest pitch to throw in the cold as far as trying to get the quick break on things. I kind of found a way to throw it later on in the game that helped me out a little bit.”

Lackey again worked with catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who has caught all six of the right-hander’s starts this season. In his first season with the Sox Pierzynski has seen Lackey progress from outing to outing.

“John hates to walk guys and other teams know that,” Pierzynski said. “So he has to put the ball in good locations in order to get guys to swing and get guys to make outs. And he’s been trying to get quick outs and he’s been doing that.

“He had good command the whole night. He just threw more sliders. He had an opportunity as the game went to throw more because he had better feel for it. But earlier in the game he was mostly fastballs. He struck out Joyce with a slider early in the game but other than that he threw a lot of fastballs, and they weren’t putting good swings on it.

“It’s hard when teams aren’t putting good swings on a pitch to try to throw something else. But as the game progresses, it started getting closer so he had to mix it up a little bit.”

Lackey was at a loss to explain the dichotomy in his last four outings, two subpar outings followed by two gems.

“I really haven’t changed my approach any start,” he said. “It’s been pretty aggressive, trying to throw a lot of strikes, and trying to keep the pitch count down and get outs as quick as I can.”

For Pierzynski, it’s just a matter of Lackey doing what he’s capable of.

“I think he ran into some trouble that one start in New York,” Pierzynski said. “He gave up a couple of home runs, and I know he hates doing that.

“The biggest thing about John is almost just trying to keep him under control and keep his emotions in check, because the biggest thing for him is not to get mad or get frustrated and just stay focused on the task. And when he does that, he’s as good as anybody.”