ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- This has gone on long enough. Terry Francona has to yank John Lackey from the starting rotation.
Francona has a replacement on hand. His name is Alfredo Aceves, and while Francona understandably is reluctant to take Aceves out of a relief role in which he has served with distinction, it's simply not fair to the rest of the team to keep running Lackey out there to have his head handed to him, every five days.
Lackey has achieved the impossible. He has made fans long for the days of Daisuke Matsuzaka. At least the Japanese right-hander mixed in an occasional good outing with all his maddening ones.
With Lackey, it's Groundhog Day every five days. The 12 wins can't mask a 6.30 ERA that ranks as the highest for any Red Sox pitcher ever with 125 innings or more.
You can pinpoint the good Lackey to four starts in July, all of which he won and posted a combined 2.52 ERA. At the time, there was sentiment that the elbow issues that had plagued Lackey earlier in the season had dissipated.
Healthy or not, the bad Lackey has returned, with a vengeance. Lackey had a 7.47 ERA in 13 starts before his July resurgence. In eight starts since then, the ERA is 6.51 (34 earned runs in 47 innings). Whether it's physical or he just can't get people out anymore, Lackey has become an untenable liability, one the Sox simply can't justify using. This has gone beyond whether Lackey or Erik Bedard should be the team's No. 3 starter in the postseason. Now it is a question of whether you can use him at all in October.
Friday night, after Lackey gave up a three-run home run to John Jaso in the second and two more runs in the third, Francona was presented an excuse for dropping Lackey, when the pitcher sustained a bruised left calf after being struck by a comebacker off Jaso's bat. Blame it on the injury if you have to, Tito. But this can't go on.
Compounding Francona's dilemma, of course, is that he hardly has enough starting pitchers for a quorum. Matsuzaka, gone. Clay Buchholz, missing since mid-June with a bad back. Josh Beckett, sprained ankle. Erik Bedard, sore left knee. Not the ideal time to voluntarily scratch healthy bodies.
That's where Aceves comes in. He was a starter in Mexico. He has started a handful of games for the Yankees and Red Sox. Not stretched out? It doesn't seem to matter to Aceves. In May, when the Sox needed him to start, he threw 86 pitches, then 98, and went from 31 to 98 in June when the Sox needed him to start again. Monday night, when Beckett came out with his ankle injury, Aceves threw 60 pitches in relief.
For now, until Bedard and Beckett return, Francona should stitch a rotation out of Jon Lester, Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland, Tim Wakefield and Aceves. After Lester, that's obviously not a group to strike fear in the hearts of opposing hitters, but maybe they give you a chance to win. That no longer is the case often enough with Lackey, regardless of how much Francona and his teammates laud him for his competitive fire. No one questions Lackey's willingness to compete. It's his ability to perform that is the matter at hand.
This was the ninth time in 25 starts that Lackey has allowed five runs or more. In his last 15 innings, spanning just three starts, he has allowed 15 runs on 20 hits.
Friday night, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was set up on the outside corner for the 3-and-1 pitch to Jaso. Lackey threw the pitch down and in, right into Jaso's swing path. Bang. Home run.
Lackey made things harder on himself in the third when he broke late to cover first after Adrian Gonzalez made a terrific stop of Johnny Damon's smash down the line. That would have been the third out of the inning. Instead, Damon was safe, and two runs eventually scored, just as they would have if Damon's ball had gone into the right-field corner.
Let Lackey, who has made just one relief appearance in his career, go to the bullpen and become part of a mix-and-match cluster of relievers Francona can use to try to get the game to Bard and Papelbon. Yes, he would become the most expensive middle reliever in history, but the Sox have to cut their losses somehow.
Here's the hardest part to comprehend: Lackey seems incapable of acknowledging how badly he has pitched, even though he is one of just a half-dozen AL pitchers to have allowed 100 or more runs this season. And, let us repeat, he has the highest ERA of any Sox pitcher in history with 125 or more innings.
How vivid can a reality check be?
Friday night, he was asked why he hasn't been able to pitch the way he did during that stretch of four good starts in July.
"I don't understand,'' he said with a sardonic smile. "I guess I only had four good starts in the last two months. All right.''
Wouldn't he acknowledge he has been hit more?
"The last two haven't been good, yeah, you're right,'' he said. "A few before that, whatever. I don't have an explanation for you.''
What about the ERA?
"It's not fun,'' he said. "Yeah, there's some frustration. Kind of bang your head against the wall, keep working at it. I'm doing everything I can, it's not working out.''
Agreed. It's not working out. It's time for a change. It's time for Aceves. The Sox still need to close out the regular season before the unthinkable occurs, and Aceves gives them a better shot to do so than Lackey does.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.