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Mullen: It Will Be Buried in Pine Tar, but John Lackey Pitched Gem

It will be buried in pine tar, but John Lackey pitched a fantastic game against the Yankees Wednesday night at Fenway Park, leading the Red Sox to a 5-1 win. With his team mired in a general malaise and the bullpen taxed heavily in recent games, in his best outing of the season, the right-hander gave the Red Sox exactly what they needed.

“It was a challenge and a motivation, for sure,” Lackey said. “It’s not something I haven’t done before. I've been the guy on Opening Day a few times. It’s something I’m capable of and expect out of myself, for sure.”

Rebounding from two poor starts, it was a vintage Lackey outing. He kept the Yankees off balance all night and off the bases for a good portion of it. He went eight innings, giving up one run on seven hits with no walks and 11 strikeouts.

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“He was outstanding,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “We staked him to an early lead. He made a number of big pitches, particularly with men on, a lot of strikes. Pitched ahead in the count. Had very good fastball location and much more consistent curveball tonight. But more than anything it was his ability to stay out of the middle of plate. That’s an offense that can do a lot of damage quick, and he slowed them down with good location and a good breaking ball.”

Lackey and catcher A.J. Pierzynski went into the game with a plan to mix in more breaking balls early.

“It was definitely part of plan to slow them down a little bit, not throw too many things around the same velocity,” Lackey said.

Lackey pitched a gem, while Yankees starter Michael Pineda was ejected with two outs in the second inning after Farrell pointed out to home plate umpire Gerry Davis a smear of pine tar on the Yankee right-hander’s neck. It was the second consecutive start by Pineda against the Sox he was seen to have pine tar on his body.

Attention to that incident will likely overshadow what Lackey did.

“I don’t know,” said Lackey, who improved to 3-2, lowering his ERA from 5.25 to 4.22. “I guess considering his last start against us it was probably a little blatant.”

Lackey’s eight-inning performance matches that of Jon Lester’s on April 17 in Chicago for longest by a Sox starter this season. Lackey has now pitched at least five innings in 27 consecutive starts, the longest such streak among active pitchers, tied with Jamie Moyer for fifth-longest since 1914.

Of primary importance, Lackey gave the bullpen a much-needed break. In the previous five games, starters went a combined 24 2/3 innings, taxing the bullpen for 20 1/3 innings. Although it was a non-save situation, Koji Uehara pitched a scoreless ninth. Right-hander Alex Wilson, called up from Triple-A Pawtucket before the game to bolster the bullpen, was not needed and was sent back following the game.

“I was thinking about trying to give the bullpen a rest, for sure,” Lackey said. “We’ve got some guys down there who’ve been worked pretty good the last week or so, trying to get those guys a little bit of a breather and win a ball game.

On a cold and windy night, when getting a good grip on the baseball could have been a problem, Lackey’s control was nearly impeccable. Of his 111 pitches, 84 were for strikes, an impressive 71 percent. For comparison, Lackey needed 100 pitches to get through just 5 1/3 innings in his last outing.

After facing four batters in the first inning, giving up one hit, he struck out the side -- Alfonso Soriano, Mark Teixeira, and Brett Gardner – in the second, on a total of 11 pitches, needing just six for the first two strikeouts. Teixeira went 0-for-3 against Lackey with three strikeouts (0-for-4 with 4 K’s in all). Only catcher Brian McCann and second baseman Brian Roberts escaped being Lackey’s strikeout victims.

The 11 strikeouts were the most he’s recorded since June 26, 2013, against the Rockies when he struck out 12, and his 16th career game with 10 or more strikeouts. It is the most strikeouts by a Sox pitcher against the Yankees since Tim Wakefield’s 12 on Sept. 11, 2005, at New York. Lackey was also the last Sox pitcher to record at least 11 strikeouts without a walk when he did so in that 2013 game against the Rockies.

“It’s just executing pitches,” Lackey said. “Sometimes you get [batters], sometimes they get you. Honestly, the last pitch I struck [Teixeira] out on, I missed my location by about three feet. He swung and missed it, so kind of got lucky that time.”

The outing represented a dramatic rebound for Lackey. After starting the season with two strong outings, going a combined 13 innings, giving up three runs, two earned to the Orioles and Rangers, he struggled in his next two, pitching a combined 11 innings against the Yankees and Orioles, giving up 12 runs on 20 hits, including a career-high four home runs at Yankee Stadium on April 12.

“He had a curveball, he had a slider, he threw some changeups, he had a good sinker. He was just in control tonight,” Pierzynski. “He looked like the John Lackey of the first two starts, not the last two starts.”

But it will likely get lost in the flood of Pineda’s pine tar use and subsequent ejection.

“It took away from John Lackey,” said Pierzynski. “It took away from the game. It took away from us playing a good game, a game we needed to win.”

“We’re talking about a guy that got ejected in the second inning instead of talking about the performance of John Lackey, which is a shame.”