Lackey responds for Red Sox

BOSTON -- There have been many more questions than answers surrounding Boston Red Sox starter John Lackey this season.

His outings have been laced with inconsistencies. He's dealt with an elbow strain that landed him on the disabled list. Through it all, Lackey and the Red Sox have maintained that the veteran right-hander is healthy and on the verge of success.

He showed a hint of that Saturday night with his best performance of the season in the Red Sox's 4-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. He worked 6 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed only three hits with one walk and seven strikeouts. He tossed 106 pitches, 69 for strikes.

"He was so good," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "That was fun to watch. He really pitched effectively."

Lackey's fastball had good life. He was locating, and his breaking pitches kept the Orioles off balance all night. It was a completely different outing than his last, when he failed to pitch out of the third inning last Monday against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park.

"The location was very good," Francona said. "There was a crispness to his pitches and his velocity was identical. I think location and pitching ahead in the count is a big difference."

While the velocity has been the same for the majority of his starts, his curveball was noticeably better Saturday. Still, Lackey dismissed any inclination that all of his pitches haven't been working.

"Honestly, I didn't use [the curveball] quite as often, so I think it was, you know, maybe caught a couple of guys off guard and got a couple of swings and misses," he said. "I had some pretty good spin on it tonight, I guess."

With the win Lackey snaps a three-game losing skid and improves to 6-8, while dropping his ERA to 6.84. It was no doubt his best outing of the season, and with the All-Star break coming up, it was a good way for him to end the first half.

"I don't know," he said when asked if this was the type of outing that could jump-start him for the second half. "My arm is feeling better, stronger. I can only guarantee I'm going to work hard and I'm going to compete hard."

Early Saturday afternoon, Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek discussed Lackey performances of late and his importance to the club's pitching staff.

"Five out of his last six outings he's thrown the ball pretty well," Varitek said. "He had one rough last outing, so if he continues to do what he does and leaves us a chance to win games, he'll be fine. He's a huge part of this team."

Varitek did not serve as Lackey's batterymate Saturday night, as Jarrod Saltalamacchia was behind the plate calling pitches.

"He pitched great. Got ahead of some hitters, didn't go away from what our plan was," Saltalamacchia said. "Kind of pitched to his strengths and got back to where he's been, and pitched a great game."

Saltalamacchia made it a point to talk about Lackey's resiliency this season.

"He's been getting hammered. Getting hammered by the media, getting hammered by fans after a bad game, but he grabs the ball the next start and goes out there and pitches his game like a professional," Saltalamacchia said. "He's had it rough. Definitely a rough year, but to his credit he keeps coming out there and pounding. Never complains, never says anything, just goes out there and lets the chip fall."

Other teammates also pumped Lackey up after this performance.

"He threw the ball great. He definitely got ahead, threw strikes, and had them swinging at his curveballs and sliders away," said third baseman Kevin Youkilis. "That's the John Lackey we're used to, so it's good to see him bounce back and have a great outing.

"It's great to see him do well, because he's that type of pitcher. Hopefully this is a big start to bounce back and have a great second half."

Lackey needs more consistency the rest of the way and Francona is confident that will happen.

"Lack's been doing this a long time," Francona said. "I know when he [meets with the media] some nights maybe he's a little gruff, but he's always the same when he's pitching. I hope he feels good about himself because he should. He'll be ready to go."

No matter if Lackey pitches well, or he doesn't, his demeanor is the same all the time.

"Honestly, guys, there's a fine line between good and bad," he said. "My arm felt about the same as it did the last start, honestly."

His last outing was awful. It was his worst performance of the season. In 2 1/3 innings against the Blue Jays, he allowed seven runs on nine hits with three walks and five strikeouts. It was a completely different scenario Saturday.

"I was locating a little bit better, but honestly, not a whole lot," Lackey said. "My velocity was pretty much the same. My arm felt pretty good the other day, so moving forward hopefully I can keep going."

After Francona took the ball from Lackey in his last start, the boos at Fenway were as loud as they have been this season. But when he exited Saturday's game with two outs in the seventh inning, he received a standing ovation.

"It was nice, yeah," Lackey said.

Francona added a bit more on the ovation.

"I think our fans are dying to show their appreciation," Francona said. "I know that they boo sometimes, but they care about their team."

Maybe now there will be more production than questions surrounding Lackey.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.