Try as they might, Sox fail Lackey again

BOSTON -- There are 30 teams in the major leagues. None have fewer sacrifice hits than the Red Sox, who have 18, the same as the White Sox.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia has three sacrifice hits in his career, all coming in 2009, when he was with Texas. Perhaps, you might surmise, not the ideal candidate to ask to bunt in the late innings of a close game against the team that is vying with you for best record in the American League.

But there was the Red Sox catcher, trying to lay one down in the seventh inning of what would be a 3-0 loss to Detroit with runners on first and second, none out, Sox down by a couple. If not predictable, the result of his attempt was hardly surprising.

Saltalamacchia's chopped bunt in front of the plate was quickly gloved by Tigers catcher Alex Avila, who fired to third for a force play. Soon enough, another Red Sox rally expired, the usual outcome when the Sox pitcher is John Lackey, who by now must think it less perilous to swim without a shark cage from Miami to Cuba (à la 64-year-old Diana Nyad) than subject himself to another exercise where he's offered no lifeline by his offense.

In Lackey’s last 11 starts dating to July 7, the Red Sox have scored a total of 13 runs for him in the games’ first six innings. In six of those games, the Sox have scored none. Lackey might not swim to Cuba, but he might decide to move there.

“You can’t worry about that,’’ Lackey said of the lack of run support, even though there were times Monday afternoon he was spitting out expletives like a boxer spits out his teeth after taking a shot flush on the jaw. “The other team’s pitcher is not my problem. I’ve got to go about my job the best I can.’’

Too often, though, Lackey’s labors have been lost, even when he’s producing high-quality work. The Tigers came in as baseball’s highest-scoring team (the Red Sox rank second). They had doubles in three of the first four innings, two leading off an inning. But those baserunners might as well have been wearing concrete shoes, as Lackey allowed no advance.

“I’m probably better now than I’ve ever been,’’ said Lackey, who is nearly two years removed from his November reconstructive elbow surgery.

Seeing any positives, despite the lack of results?

“I’m trying, man,’’ he said. “I’m trying hard.’’

After watching Jose Iglesias execute three double plays con pimiento, including twice when the Sox were threatening with two on and no out against Tigers pitcher Doug Fister, Sox manager John Farrell had no interest in watching his former shortstop perform any more Havana-style magic, hence the call to have Saltalamacchia bunt.

“Given the three double plays they’d turned already,’’ Farrell said, “we were looking to do anything we can to put a couple of guys in scoring position. That was something that was talked about prior to the previous at-bat. The way [Saltalamacchia] is feeling, seeing the ball at the plate, it might not have been the normal request on Salty’s part, but we’re trying to stay out of the double play.’’

The only way to do that, Farrell concluded, was to keep the ball out of Iglesias’ area code, no small task on an afternoon when the 23-year-old Cuban added a couple of clips to his highlight reel: one, when he flew parallel to the ground to avoid Mike Napoli’s takeout slide in the second, and again in the sixth, when he turned a hit-and-run ground ball into a tag-and-throw double play, somehow tagging Shane Victorino, then spinning and flipping a throw to retire Dustin Pedroia, who hit into two of the double plays.

“When people make plays like that, you can’t practice those,’’ Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “That’s just athleticism and flexibility, agility, whatever you want to call it. You just can’t practice a play like that. If somebody tells me they practice a play like that, I’ll tell them they’re lying because that doesn’t happen.”

Saltalamacchia had hit into the other DP and taken a called third strike and was batting 3-for-19 on the homestand, so it’s understandable if Farrell decided to give up an out to advance the runners over after a Daniel Nava double (one of his three hits) and a walk to Napoli put runners on first and second in the seventh. But if the bunt was warranted, what consideration was given to calling upon a more highly skilled practitioner of the art than Salty to lay it down?

“I wouldn’t pinch hit, then bunt,’’ said Farrell, who has shown a remarkable tolerance this season for even those questions that reek of the second guess. “If he fouls it off and is down in the count, or if he gets an advantage count, 2-and-0, we’d probably let him swing away at that point. That was something discussed prior, too.’’

So the bunt it was, and when that didn’t work, the Sox found themselves in the eighth inning encountering one Bruce Rondon, a 275-pound terminator whose last five pitches to David Ortiz registered 103, 103, 102, 91-slider, 102 -- adios.

Lackey, meanwhile, was as stingy as ever, parsing out just three runs in 7 1/3 innings, but that was enough to lose the first game of the three-game set between the teams with the best records in the American League. Playing without 2012 MVP Miguel Cabrera, whose sore groin kept him out of the game but not from swaying arm in arm with three teammates on the dugout railing to “Sweet Caroline,” the Tigers broke a scoreless tie in the seventh on a single by Victor Martinez and triple to the triangle by Andy Dirks, the ball falling just out of the reach of Jacoby Ellsbury. Then Omar Infante walked, and Dirks scored while Pedroia was starting a double play.

Lackey left after a couple of singles with one out in the eighth, and Prince Fielder lined Matt Thornton’s first pitch for a sacrifice fly that made it 3-0.

Lackey is now 8-12 this season, but his ERA is 3.22, the lowest it’s ever been in a season after 25 starts. Only two big league pitchers in 2013 have fewer wins with an ERA that low after 25 starts: Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett (seven) and Washington’s Stephen Strasburg (six). Only one big league pitcher with an ERA equal to or better than Lackey’s has lost more games: Chris Sale of the White Sox, and he’s pitching for a last-place team.

But the player who was once vilified here for showing up teammates was freely passing out absolution Monday.

“It’s definitely not a lack of effort,’’ he said. “The boys want to get me runs. They feel pretty bad after games. I get a lot of ‘nice jobs.’ They’re grinding, but things happen.’’

The Tigers have beaten the Red Sox in four of five meetings this season, and have 19-1 Max Scherzer pitching Tuesday night against Jon Lester. They now trail the Sox by a half-game for the league’s best record, the Sox losing for just the second time in the last nine games.

The Sox were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position (the Tigers not much better at 1-for-12), but Lackey will tell you it doesn’t take much. The Sox were shut out for the 11th time this season, curveballing Jose Veras, imported from Houston, registering the save by striking out Stephen Drew to end it. Making for one extremely frustrated man from Abilene.

“He’s a competitor,” Farrell said. “I expect him to be frustrated. Given the six times he’s been on the short end of a shutout, I think there are a lot of runs waiting to come his way.’’