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Lackey gets ahead in earning Red Sox' first win of 2014

As John Lackey was putting himself back in the good graces of Red Sox fans last season, and restoring a career rebooted by the reconstruction of his right elbow, much of the focus fell on an earned run average that registered almost three runs lower than his last full season, and, for that matter, on a significant reduction in baserunners while his strikeout numbers spiked.

All of those are end-result numbers, which is why they received so much attention. But a big part of Lackey getting to that point was his ability to get ahead of opposing hitters, then to take advantage once he did so.

And that was very much a key again Wednesday in his 2014 season debut.

A year ago, the righthanded starter got himself into an 0-1 count against nearly 52 percent of the hitters he faced – in addition to the 12.3 percent of hitters who put his initial offering into play. In total he threw a first-pitch strike to roughly two of every three hitters, and not only did he pound the zone early in at-bats, he capitalized after establishing the upper hand.

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As John Lackey was putting himself back in the good graces of Red Sox fans last season, and restoring a career rebooted by the reconstruction of his right elbow, much of the focus fell on an earned run average that registered almost three runs lower than his last full season, and, for that matter, on a significant reduction in baserunners while his strikeout numbers spiked.

All of those are end-result numbers, which is why they received so much attention. But a big part of Lackey getting to that point was his ability to get ahead of opposing hitters, then to take advantage once he did so.

And that was very much a key again Wednesday in his 2014 season debut.

A year ago, the righthanded starter got himself into an 0-1 count against nearly 52 percent of the hitters he faced – in addition to the 12.3 percent of hitters who put his initial offering into play. In total he threw a first-pitch strike to roughly two of every three hitters, and not only did he pound the zone early in at-bats, he capitalized after establishing the upper hand.

In 2013, Lackey held hitters to a .211 batting average, .240 on-base percentage, and .560 on-base plus slugging after getting ahead 0-and-1. All of those represented the best numbers of his career under those circumstances, while a 9.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio was second-best, behind only the 9.27 of 2008.

So it should be an encouraging sign that over the course of six strong innings that helped the Red Sox pick up their first win of the season, 6-2 over the Orioles, Lackey was especially aggressive and effective early in the count.

The righthander fired a first pitch strike to 19 of the 22 Baltimore batters he faced. Three of those put the first pitch in play – all of those were retired – while the three who got ahead of Lackey went 0-for-2 with a walk.

That means hitters finished the night 3-for-16 (.188) after falling behind 0-1 to the Sox righty, who yielded an 0-2 homer to Nelson Cruz but still managed to finish his outing having allowed only two runs on three hits and a walk while striking out six. He retired 11 in a row at one point, and was crisp from the start – perhaps quieting some of the concerns that arose when his spring training ERA wound up at 6.27.

“Still think I’ve got some arm to build up – could take a month or so to get up to 100 percent,” Lackey told reporters in the Camden Yards clubhouse afterward, “but for the first one, I felt pretty good about it.”

Two days after letting Jon Lester begin the seventh with 92 pitches, John Farrell decided Lackey was done after six innings and 90 pitches, lending credence to the notion that Lackey’s stamina is still a work in progress. But he still kept a good pace to his work on Wednesday night, and he was still aggressive. He relied primarily on his fastball and it served him well, as the Orioles only once sent more than three hitters to the plate in an inning.

Even when he did run into trouble the outing never appeared at risk of unraveling, his brief difficulties coming after Chris Davis worked a two-out walk and Cruz made Lackey pay for elevating an 0-2 mistake that needed to either be elevated better or farther off the plate. Instead of being enticed to chase, Cruz was able to get his arms extended, so he lifted a shot that landed just beyond the top of the right-field wall – landing as just the second 0-2 homer Lackey has allowed as a member of the Red Sox, and the first since 2011. By and large he was much better than that last year after managing to work the count into his favor.

And Wednesday, but for that lone mistake, he was that way again.