BOSTON -- His teammates built him a 5-1 lead through four innings and John Lackey, seemingly uncomfortable with so much of a helping hand, left the game facing trouble with one out in the sixth.
The Red Sox's lead was down to 6-4, with a Tampa Bay Ray on first base.
And what did we hear?
A standing ovation when Lackey handed the ball to Red Sox manager John Farrell and departed from Game 2 of this ALDS.
Yes, a warm hand for the man whose arrival here in 2010 as a five-year, $82.5 million free-agent signing coincided with a downturn in Red Sox baseball fortunes, in which Lackey played a struggling part.
But after missing all last season following Tommy John surgery, Lackey rehabilitated his battered image the only way an unpopular pitcher can. He pitched well, his 10-13 record during the regular season was misleading, due to inconsistent run support.
On Saturday, he had run support. And fan support.
"The atmosphere out there was unbelievable," said Lackey about his first postseason appearance as a Red Sox, a 7-4 victory Saturday night over the Tampa Bay Rays that put Boston up 2-0 in this best-of-five ALDS.
"The people were going crazy. And I guess when I struck (Ben) Zobrist out to get out of that one jam (in the fifth), it was a fun place to be, for sure."
Lackey did get the win, despite his stuff "probably being pretty far down there," because his teammates took it to Tampa ace David Price.
Lackey allowed four earned runs on seven hits over 5.1 innings and 95 pitches. He walked three and struck out six. Lackey had not pitched in a real game since Sept. 24 in Colorado.
"Tonight was a blue-collar night on the mound (for Lackey)," said Farrell. "He gave us everything he had. Fortunately we were able to give him a little bit of a cushion where he wasn't making every pitch with his back against the wall."
We in Boston might forget Lackey came here with a reputation for being a fierce money pitcher. He was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a 23-year-old Angels rookie, pitched 7.1 shutout innings against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the 2008 ALDS, and is now 4-4 with a 3.35 ERA in 83.1 postseason innings.
Now the Red Sox head to St. Petersburg with a 2-0 lead and Clay Buchholz rested and ready. Buchholz numbers this season (12-1, 1.74) were probably deserving of him following Jon Lester in Boston's postseason rotation, though he was on the disabled list from June 8 to September 10 with shoulder woes.
Buchholz was afforded the time to assure himself his shoulder was ready for stressful games. His teammates increased Boston's AL East lead from 1.5 games to 7.5 games while Buchholz was on the DL.
"And it afforded us further ability to be patient with Clay," said Farrell. "The acquisition of (Jake) Peavy (on July 30) obviously goes into that. Lackey this season struggled on the road (4-10, 4.48) in comparison to his Fenway numbers (6-3, 2.47), so he got the start Saturday night.
Lackey didn't pitch great. But the plan still worked. The Red Sox in Game 3 on Monday will send their No. 1A pitcher out to close out the Rays.
The Red Sox in their history are 7-1 in postseason series after grabbing a 2-0 lead in games, the only loss being the 1986 World Series.
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