When David Ortiz launched a 10th-inning homer over the left-field wall on Oct. 8, 2004, John Lackey watched the ball climb up and out of Fenway Park from the visitor’s perspective. A walk-off shot, it propelled the Red Sox to a sweep of the Angels, and raucously ended the AL Division Series without the Anaheim right-hander getting a chance to pitch.
But while most of the players who conspired to spoil that postseason have since retired, Lackey took the mound Wednesday night and – on the night many of those 2004 Sox gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their World Series title – showed them that a decade later he’s still plenty good.
Striking out nine over 6.1 innings that stretched his left him unscored upon in his last two starts, Lackey continued to look as good in a Red Sox uniform as he has at almost any point in his five seasons with Boston – dropping his ERA to a rotation-best 3.27 while notching his sixth win, this one by a count of 4-0 over the Braves.
“It’s somewhat of a sign of what he’s been all year for us,” manager John Farrell said after Lackey’s league-best third start of at least nine whiffs and no walks. “A number of starts where he has not walked people. He’s had a very good fastball with some swing-and-miss. Another shutout working here tonight. He set the tone here tonight.”
With their first team shutout of the season, the Sox suddenly find themselves on an honest-to-goodness winning streak, having responded to a 10-game losing skid by winning three straight over the NL East-leading Braves. After failing on their seven previous opportunities to string together a trifecta, it signified the team’s longest sustained success of the season, and stood as an encouraging Fenway performance after losing all six games during their previous homestand.
Generally speaking the Sox haven’t been good at home – they’re now just 11-17 – but Wednesday was a night when they managed to avoid some of the pitfalls that have been all too familiar along the path to a 23-29 and an eight-game deficit in the division.
They entered 12-22 against right-handed starting pitchers, 5-22 when allowing the game’s first run, 5-12 in one-run games, and 0-15 when scoring three runs or less – but Boston banged out 12 hits on the night, scored in the second and third to get up early against righty Gavin Floyd, tacked on some insurance over the middle innings, and the bullpen squelched Atlanta’s one real chance to tighten things up.
“On the heels of what we’ve come off of, much-needed,” Farrell said. “When you look at the last two nights, both John Lackey, Jon Lester have done an excellent job getting deep into the game, [and] we’ve come up with some big hits.”
The Sox were 5-for-14 with runners in scoring position, but pieced together the game’s first run without needing a big knock. Jonny Gomes reached on an infield single, took second on a throwing error, scooted to third on a wild pitch, then scored on Daniel Nava’s double-play groundout. The timely hits started coming in the next frame, when Xander Bogaerts was gifted a double to shallow center, moved to third on David Ortiz’s legged-out single to a shifted second baseman, and delivered him from third with an A.J. Pierzynski safety through the middle.
Boston didn’t reach Floyd for another, but he left after five innings and 106 pitches, and the Sox scored twice against rookie lefty Alex Wood, with Jackie Bradley Jr. and Gomes doubling and singling home runs in the sixth and seventh, respectively. It was the second hit of the night for each of them, who were joined by Pierzynski (2-for-4) and Bogaerts (3-for-4) in providing multi-hit performances.
“No one truly had their head in the sand,” Gomes said of the way the team has recovered from its longest losing streak in two decades. “No one was really ready to throw in the white towel on the season by any means. It was just a rough patch. This team does a pretty good job of turning the page, cleaning the slate.
“We’re getting a little momentum,” added Bradley.
Chris Capuano did his part to keep the pendulum moving in a positive direction by getting a couple of ground outs to second (sandwiched around a walk) to strand the tying runs after relieving the starter with two on in the seventh. Junichi Tazawa pitched the eighth, and Craig Breslow the ninth, but the bulk of the credit for the pitching performance goes to Lackey, who opened 20 of 27 plate appearances with strikes, and threw only 28 of 105 pitches for balls.
Most impressive about those numbers are that he knew the Braves would be aggressive, so he had to locate effectively if he was going to pound the zone with such relentlessness. But he was up to the challenge. The wind may have helped him keep Justin Upton’s wall-banging double in the park, but even so his mistakes were rare, he scattered the eight hits he allowed, and he continued to work effectively with Pierzynski – who has now caught all 11 of his starts, eight of which have seen the righty finish at least six innings while allowing no more than two runs.
And the latest of which kept the Sox moving in the right direction.
“You can’t make up 10 games in one day,” Lackey said. “You’ve just go to keep grinding at it, and hopefully you look up there in 40, 50 games, and you’re back in it.”