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Closing Time: John Lackey returns to form in Red Sox win over Yankees

08.17.13 at 7:34 pm ET
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In defeat, John Lackey was once again excellent. (AP)

John Lackey tossed 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball against the Yankees on Saturday. (AP)

On Saturday, the Red Sox faced the possibility of losing hold of sole possession of first place. A loss to the Yankees and a Tampa Bay victory would mean that the top of the AL East was once again even. But that outcome did not come to pass, thanks in no small part to a member of the roster who has had a far larger than expected role in the Sox’ season spent almost entirely in first.

John Lackey, the Red Sox’ de facto ace for much of the season, had given fans a bit of a scare this month by pitching through a rolled ankle against the Astros on Aug. 5, then getting hit around out of the games in his start six days later against the Royals.

But Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park, facing a Yankee lineup much improved over the version he saw just under a month ago, a crowd of 37,517 saw what was arguably Lackey’s best performance in at least a month in a 6-1 win over New York.

The right-hander shut down New York batters for 6 2/3 strong innings, allowing one run on six hits and three walks. John Farrell gave him a chance to finish the seventh, but after Lackey walked Eduardo Nunez — who, granted, was quickly erased by a double play — and drilled Chris Stewart, lefty Craig Breslow came on to finish the frame.

Lackey ended his day having thrown about two-thirds of his 103 pitches for strikes, and although he recorded only one strikeout — his lowest total since Sept. 4, 2011 — he was effective in other ways, namely getting ground balls. Fifteen of Lackey’s 20 outs came on grounders.

The top third of the Yankees lineup consisting of Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki and Robinson Cano was particularly hapless against Lackey. The trio combined to go 0-for-11 with six men left on base.

Lackey struggled the most in the fifth and seventh innings, both of which followed lengthy Red Sox rallies that caused him to sit on the bench a little longer than normal. During the first test, Dustin Pedroia made a pair of pretty plays to help Lackey escape the jam, and during the seventh Lackey’s evening ended before he had a chance to get the last out.

It was an important return to form after he allowed four earned runs — all in the first four innings — against Kansas City his last time out. Lackey’s ERA on the season is down to 3.22.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

– As messy as the Red Sox have been in the field of late, making a combined seven errors in their last three games, they were much less so Saturday, turning in a number of sharp plays that likely won’t make the highlight reels but were all-around sound nonetheless.

Lackey made a pair of them. He snagged two comebackers, one in the first — which required a nice scoop by Mike Carp at first base — and another in the third. Dustin Pedroia also saved a run with back-to-back sliding stops on hard hit grounders from Suzuki and Cano in the fifth.

It was Stephen Drew, however, who owned what was arguably the biggest defensive play of the game when the Yankees were threatening in the second.

With Alfonso Soriano on second and Alex Rodriguez on first, Curtis Granderson looped one to center. Drew got under it, then made the heads-up play to double Soriano off second. Lackey allowed two singles and two walks in the inning, but escaped otherwise unscathed.

The play was particularly redeeming for Drew, who made an error Friday night and couldn’t come up with the game-ending line drive Wednesday in Toronto.

Overall, Drew is a strong defender, entering Saturday ranked fifth among major league shortstop in fielding percentage (.987) and 12th in UZR (3.1).

– That the Red Sox have fallen into a bit of a slump is no secret, and hitting with runners in scoring position has been a part of that. They had come out on top in just three of their prior nine games entering Saturday and hit .228 (18-for-79) with runners on second and/or third in that time.

Saturday, though, offered reason for optimism. They went 4-for-15, which is a slightly better .267 mark, and benefited from a Jacoby Ellsbury RBI double to right in the sixth. The two-bagger plated Jarrod Saltalamacchia with what at the time was an important insurance run.

– After Lackey departed, three relievers combined to nail down the win. Breslow ended the seventh, then got the first out in the eighth before making way for right-hander Junichi Tazawa, who retired the only two batters he faced. Koji Uehara struck out a pair in scoreless ninth.

– Ellsbury recorded his sixth multi-hit game in 15 tries this month with his pull-happy 3-for-5, two-RBI effort. He led off the game with a line-drive single to right, then had a nearly identical hit to cap the Sox’ three-run fourth inning. The sixth inning featured his run-scoring double that one-hopped the right-field fence.

It’s an encouraging sign for the center fielder and free-agent-to-be, who is batting .200 (6-for-30) since a four-hit effort Aug. 10 in Kansas City. Dating back to the end of the All-Star break — a full month on Monday — Ellsbury owns a .263 average and .744 OPS, drawing eight walks compared to 23 strikeouts.

Will Middlebrooks may have recovered whatever talisman Jose Iglesias used to pray to the BABIP gods. Before striking out swinging in the sixth, Middlebrooks dunked a blooper into right for a single, then rolled one perfectly up the middle to second baseman Cano for an infield hit.

Middlebrooks has recorded at least one hit in each game since returning to the big league team exactly one week ago. He is hitting .435 (10-for-23) in that time.

– With a long fly into the covered center-field seats, David Ortiz surpassed his 2012 home run total (23 in an injury-shorted 90-game season). Only one-third of his 24 round-trippers have come at Fenway.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

– Opponents have been running wild on Lackey all season, and the contest with the Yankees was no different. Soriano swiped second in the second inning, then Granderson did the same in the fourth. The only of the three attempted basestealers that Saltalamacchia cut down was Soriano, who was ruled out on a close call at second in the fourth. Replays showed Soriano likely beat the tag.

The 31 steals off of Lackey is more than any other pitcher in baseball, while Saltalamacchia’s caught stealing rate stands at 19.5 percent, well under the league average of one in four.

– Pedroia’s 30th birthday will certainly be a forgettable one. The second baseman went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and four men left on base, and the biggest scare came in the bottom of the eighth he fouled a ball hard off his left foot — the same one he broke in June 2010. After limping around for a couple minutes, tended to by Farrell and a trainer, Pedroia stepped back up to the plate to finish his at-bat, which resulted in a strikeout.

In the top of the ninth, Brock Holt replaced Pedroia at second.

To his credit, Pedroia did make a number of diving stops in the field, including one that robbed Rodriguez (0-for-3, walk) of a hit.

– All week long, Soriano has looked like the Yankee second baseman of yesteryear when he was a homer away from joining the 40-40 club as a 26-year-old in 2002.

More than a decade later, and now playing left field, Soriano is 15-for-22 with five long balls and 18 RBIs in his last five games. He somewhat continued that torrid pace Saturday by going 2-for-4 but was limited to a pair of singles.

On Sunday, Soriano will have to face Ryan Dempster, whom he has struck out against twice in four plate appearances.

Read More: Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury
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