Lackey keeps getting stronger

BOSTON -- If the art of pitching is all about changing the batter's eye level, the same rings true for John Lackey this season.

First, there was the comeback, working just to get back on the mound after Tommy John surgery. It didn't start out pretty with an injury-shortened start at Toronto in his season debut. Then, there was the first win, April 28 against Houston. From there, it was about consistency and trying to bounce back from a string of three straight losses in May.

Now, as the All-Star break nears, Lackey is adjusting his gaze a bit higher.

After Tuesday night's strong eight-inning showing in a 4-1 against the San Diego Padres, Lackey moved above .500 and has won his past three decisions. His ERA is down to 2.81 and he has gone at least seven innings, allowing no more than two runs, in his past four starts.

Lackey was aggressive against the Padres, throwing 73 strikes in 103 pitches -- many of those with a swing and a miss.

As a result, after his longest outing since midway through the 2011 season (also eight innings), Lackey is moving on to his next goal -- or point of critique at least.

"Honestly, there's such a thing as too many strikes," Lackey said after surrendering one walk and striking out six. "I've got to look at that when you go up against a team that's going to swing a lot."

A second-inning walk given up to Jesus Guzman -- who also touched Lackey for a solo home run to left in the seventh -- was Lackey's first in nearly two full games of service, following a fifth-inning walk against Detroit on June 20.

Accuracy is not the only improvement for Lackey. He's now finding increased velocity. While starting Tuesday's game with back-to-back strikeouts, Lackey got Logan Forsythe looking before finding a little extra, hitting 96 on the gun with a rising fastball to Chris Denorfia (down swinging).

"I think what allows him to get that many [swings and misses] is that he establishes down the strike zone early on," Red Sox manager John Farrell said after Tuesday's performance. "And when you force hitters to look down, there's going to be a little bit of a surprise element with the change in eye level, or a different pitch up in the strike zone."

With more than 100 pitches in his outing, Lackey retired to the dugout after the eighth inning to a building chorus of cheers from and behind the dugout. He was asked postgame about the fan reaction. For a pitcher who has carried the expectations of a five-year free-agent deal worth more than $80 million from the day it was signed, Lackey acknowledged the reason behind the cheers.

"Going out and pitching well, I think that's all they want to see," he said.

It's a point not lost on teammates.

"When the fans were on him, media was on him, it didn't change our opinion of him," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "He didn't change his approach. He was still going to go out there and being a competitor. He's, by far, one of the best teammates I've ever had."

Perhaps what has mattered most is what Lackey has proven to himself.

As in most instances when he's thrown well this season, Lackey began his postgame remarks nodding to health as the prime factor. Aside from health, there's also his svelte frame, proof positive to renewed focus in the offseason.

Maybe now it's just about taking the next step.

"The self-commitment he's made to reshaping himself, we've talked repeatedly about it," Farrell said. "All this is based on the work that John has put in. And it's great to see it taking place."