PITTSBURGH - For a while, it looked like another night of frustration for John Lackey.
The big right-hander, acquired in a deadline trade with the Boston Red Sox, pitched smartly around a few potential Pirate rallies Monday night, but the Cards trailed 1-0 into the seventh inning, unable to crack Francisco Liriano. Still, Lackey did what the club needed most – he kept the Pirates close.
“He gave us a chance to come back,” said Matt Holliday, whose two-run, two out single in the seventh gave the Cards the lead for good. “The way Liriano was pitching, we needed him to keep us right there and give us a chance to find something against him.”
Lackey’s persistence and ability to keep the Pirates in check paid off with three two-outs runs in the seventh inning, lifting the Cardinals past the Bucs 3-2 and adding a little distance between them and the Pirates in the division and wild card chases.
Lackey was efficient, economical and, at times, brilliant as he threw 91 pitches in seven innings; just 23 for balls. He gave up five hits in the first two innings but just two for the rest of the game. A trio of Cardinal double plays bailed him out of jams in the first, fourth and fifth innings.
“That’s just the way I pitch,” he said of the 3:1 strike-to-ball ratio after the game. “I like to pound the strike zone. I felt good tonight. Tony (Cruz) and I made some adjustments as the game went on. I’m still learning the line-ups and the hitters and their approach.”
Cruz agreed that after surrendering five hits in the first two innings, he and Lackey made some minor adjustments. But, he said, it all comes down to executing the pitches. “I was trying to read what they were looking for, what pitches they were sitting on,” Cruz said. “But it’s really just a guessing game. They’ve got some very good hitters over there. They don’t make easy outs. They put together some good at-bats.”
For the night, Lackey gave up a single walk, struck out three and lowered his ERA to 4.50. More importantly, it was his fourth excellent start in a Cardinal uniform; the only blemish a shelling by Baltimore on Aug. 9. Although he is just 2-1 as a Cardinal, the Redbirds have won four of the five games he started because he has limited damage and avoided big innings in those games.
But the Cardinal defense also deserves credit for a part of Lackey’s victory. After giving up a double and a single, a spectacular 6-4-3 double play with the runner going from first bailed him out of the initial inning. A home run and back-to-back singles darkened the prospects in the second inning and it appeared Lackey was on the ropes.
He escaped that jam and settled in, helped by a strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play in the fourth and a 6-3 twin killing which erased a walk.
“Those double plays were huge,” Lackey said. “Kolten made a really good turn in the first inning. In a 1-0 game, everything is magnified. Tony knows the hitters and we just went with what I do well. We have a good rapport. He made some great calls and gave me some good targets.”
Once the Redbirds took the lead, Lackey was a bulldog, retiring the side in order in the bottom of the seventh. “Once the boys get a lead, I just wanted to pound the strike zone,” he said, returning to a familiar theme.
Since becoming a Cardinal and omitting the brutal shelling in the Oriole game, Lackey has surrendered just 11 runs in four games, and pitched 27 innings, another plus for a bullpen that has been taxed by short starter outings.