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Closing Time: John Lackey, Red Sox offense fall flat in loss to Rays

05.14.13 at 10:25 pm ET
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Sustaining arm strength over a full outing can be one of the biggest challenges facing pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery. And on Tuesday night, that challenge seemingly caught up with Red Sox starter John Lackey.

The right-hander appeared overpowering early, retiring the first seven batters he faced while exhibiting a 91-93 mph fastball and a sharp, biting slider that garnered swings and misses. But after Jose Molina rolled a grounder through the right side of the infield with one out in the third, things fell apart quickly for the right-hander. He escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the third, but had no such luck in the fifth, when an array of well-placed hits (a check-swing bloop double to left, a lost-in-the-dome pop-up to first) resulted in a five-run yield. The contact wasn’t hard, but Lackey’s velocity dipped during the frame, as he was working at 89-91 mph.

These are the peaks and valleys that characterize pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery. At times this year, Lackey has featured his best stuff in a Red Sox uniform. Yet there will be moments like Tuesday night where he ultimately looks like he’s swimming upstream against an opposing lineup.

Unfortunately for the Sox, Lackey’s struggle came at a time when the team has been able to provide little leeway to its pitching staff. After the Sox plated three first-inning runs, they were silent over the next eight frames. The result was a 5-3 loss that left the team 2-9 in its last 11 games.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

‘€¢ Lackey gave up season highs in earned runs (5) and hits (9) while matching his shortest outing of the year (4 1/3 innings). He required 84 pitches (55 strikes). He didn’t give up as much hard contact as his line would lead one to believe — six singles, three doubles — but his stuff declined quickly once he went to the stretch. He also seemed to struggle to find common ground with catcher Ryan Lavarnway on several occasions in the third and fourth innings, resulting in numerous mound visits and a dripping pace.

‘€¢ After the Sox plated three first-inning runs against Rays starter Matt Moore (while making him throw 30 pitches), they failed to sustain their offense. Moore did not give up another run and ended up working six innings in which he struck out eight and walked two. The Sox had just one hit after the first inning. They have now lost their last five starts against left-handed pitchers, with David Price slated to take the mound against them on Wednesday.

‘€¢ Mike Napoli lost a fly ball against the roof of the Tropicana Dome. What would have been the third out of the fourth inning — allowing the Sox to escape the frame in a 3-3 tie — instead became a 75-foot, two-run single that provided the margin in the game. The defensive lapse continued a month of repeated miscues by the Sox. The team’s strong play in the field played a critical role in its best-in-baseball April, with the team permitting just a .284 batting average on balls in play (fifth best in the AL). But in May, the Sox entered Tuesday with a .319 BABIP, fourth worst in the AL.

‘€¢ Napoli went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, failing to build any momentum off his three-hit game on Sunday. But Napoli was one of several right-handed hitters who were expected to offer some thump against the left-handed Moore who made no offensive impact for the Sox. He was joined in hitlessness by Jonny Gomes (0-for-4, 3 strikeouts), Will Middlebrooks (0-for-4, 2 strikeouts) and Ryan Lavarnway (0-for-3, strikeout).

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

‘€¢ David Ortiz allowed the Sox to claim an early 3-0 lead by unloading on a 92 mph fastball on a 1-0 count with runners on second and third, sending it deep into the right field bleachers for a three-run homer. The home run was notable for a few reasons:

  • It was the first homer of the year by Ortiz against a lefty. While he’d been spectacular against southpaws in 2011 and 2012, he entered the game hitting .226/.265/.290 against lefties.
  • It was just the Sox’ third homer of the month with runners in scoring position. Such fence-clearances have come at roughly once-a-week intervals for the Sox in May, with Mike Napoli having delivered one on May 1 and Jonny Gomes having launched a grand slam on May 8.
  • The homer broke an 0-for-21 stretch by the Sox with runners in scoring position dating to Saturday.
  • It represented just the fifth time in as many as 12 games that the Sox had scored as many as three runs against an opposing starter.

‘€¢ For the first time in May, Jacoby Ellsbury reached base as many as three times in a game. He did so without benefit of a hit, walking twice and getting drummed by a pitch in the first.

‘€¢ Stephen Drew had his first extra-base hit in seven games, lining a double off the top of the fence in right field in the top of the fifth. The shortstop later walked.

‘€¢ Ryan Lavarnway threw out James Loney on an attempted steal of third base on a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play to end the fifth. Lavarnway caught one of two Rays baserunners attempting to steal against him, consistent with his Triple-A performance in which he’d caught 7-of-15 (46.7 percent) of would-be base thieves.

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