Lackey better than expected in return

BOSTON -- After missing a full season following Tommy John surgery, exiting his first start in 2013 with an arm injury and throwing 27 pitches in the first inning Sunday against the Houston Astros, the expectations for John Lackey had to be relatively low. Just do what you can to get us to the middle innings, John, and be on your way.

In what amounts to a wonderful development for the Red Sox, Lackey far exceeded those expectations in a 6-1 victory, picking up his first win in 614 days and solidifying an already potent starting rotation.

“Feels good. It’s been a long time,” said Lackey, who yielded a run on five hits and two walks in six innings. “Been a lot of hard work to get back to this point and hopefully I can keep it rolling forward.”

Lackey threw 76 pitches before suffering a biceps strain in his first start in Toronto on April 6. He tossed 67 more in a rehab outing for Double-A Portland. Manager John Farrell said that five innings on Sunday was a “realistic goal,” but after Lackey walked two and gave up an RBI single in the lengthy first inning, it seemed unrealistic.

An aggressive approach by the Astros helped Lackey get some quick outs after the first. And after surprising most in attendance by reaching the sixth, he did wonders for his confidence by wiggling out of a sticky situation.

Lackey loaded the bases on three straight singles with one out in the sixth. With action in the bullpen and eyes on the Red Sox dugout for any sign of Farrell, Lackey pressed on and got a huge strikeout of Fernando Martinez on a darting slider, then an inning-ending grounder to shortstop on the very next pitch. The third out prompted a rather joyous celebration for Lackey and some of his teammates, for they knew he had broken through a barrier in his effort to regain what he once had.

“I think everyone was pulling for him to get out of that inning,” Farrell said.

Lackey admitted to sensing “a little bit of something” in the biceps, but feels that any issues will go away as he builds up arm strength, a process he figures will take him four or five starts. Simply knowing that he doesn’t have to spend time rehabbing before he can get back out on the mound speaks volumes for the veteran right-hander.

“It was a relief probably to know I’m going to get my next start, to come out of it healthy, more than anything. It’s been a long time,” he said. “Nice to still be moving forward.”

As Lackey makes that move forward, there will be a whole new set of expectations. Farrell, for one, sees a return to the days when Lackey was a stalwart in rotations in Anaheim and Boston for much of 2010.

“A healthy John Lackey and one that is capable of a career that’s been very good, he gives us a huge boost,” Farrell said. “Not in terms of just innings alone, the number of innings he can pitch, but the performance. When you look back to when he was healthy, and I think we can all recognize the last couple of years have been as much competing against his own body as it has been the opponent.

"He’s in a good place right now and there were no physical issues today. He came out of today fine. He does give us a seasoned veteran and a very good pitcher in that spot in the rotation.”

Farrell expressed surprise not only in Lackey’s ability to go six innings after a 27-pitch first inning, but also in the effectiveness of Lackey’s stuff.

“I thought the ball got out of his hand better than expected,” he said. “Not only in terms of velocity but the action that some of his pitches showed at the bottom of the strike zone. Whether it was a two-seamer, he got a number of ground balls. He had a good cutter, consistent sharpness to his curveball as we saw in his first start in Toronto.

“Honestly it was better than expected in most ways today.”

Prior to Sunday, the last time Lackey was on the mound at Fenway Park, he allowed eight of the last 13 men he faced to reach safely and finished with 4⅓ miserable innings smack dab in the midst of the worst team collapse in baseball history.

More than 19 months later on a sunny April afternoon, it was a very different story, and Lackey appears poised to pen a new, more positive chapter in a spotty Red Sox career.