The latest chapter in John Lackey's season from hell unfolded on Wednesday at Fenway Park, where not even frequent rain could extinguish the blaze of failure that scorched the Red Sox.
Apologists will step in and wave away concerns, saying that in this particular case Lackey was hampered by the delays and the subsequent wet conditions. That we shouldn't judge him based on Wednesday's outing. That he might have put together a solid enough start had it been a dry day.
It's possible that they're correct, though prior to the delay Lackey had already surrendered a home run to Will Venable, a single to Orlando Hudson and a walk to Cameron Maybin. He might have recovered from that. Then again, his track record in 2011 has done nothing to earn him the benefit of the doubt.
The weather that pushed back the game's start returned in the third, and the fourth inning that followed was disastrous. Two walks, two singles, a wild pitch and two plunkings chased Lackey and put Boston in a 5-0 hole from which it would not recover; as a result, the recently hot Red Sox lost the three-game series to one of baseball's poorest offensive teams.
The blame for the loss goes well beyond Lackey. The offense could muster no response, and one run will rarely win a game. And perhaps Lackey does deserve a bit of slack for the rain that clearly threw him off track. But looking at the big picture, Lackey has been a train wreck from day one.
How much longer can the club survive with him in the rotation?
The problem of what to do with the $85 million man is made worse by the team's other pitching ills. Clay Buchholz is on the D.L. with a stiff back. Josh Beckett missed his last start due to an illness that is making the rounds. Alfredo Aceves is struggling.
To some degree, the Sox simply needed a body on the mound. But it's hard to argue the point that right now the team would be better off with anyone other than Lackey.
Maybe he isn't right physically. Maybe his problems are all in his head. With his wife still battling breast cancer, the latter is a good bet. But at the risk of sounding insensitive, the whys and wherefores not longer matter. The club can't afford to throw away its chances every time Lackey takes the bump, nor can it simply hope to score a half dozen runs just to give itself a chance.
Regardless of how much the guy earns, Terry Francona needs to fight his own propensity to stick with pitchers for too long and yank Lackey from the rotation.
In the past, the aspect of Lackey's game that made his mediocre ERA and poor peripherals tolerable was his ability to work deep into games. The problem is, that's not happening this year. Lackey is averaging just under 5.2 innings per start in 2011. If they were 5.2 good innings it might not be an issue, but the lack of innings combined with a 7.36 ERA is unbearable.
Of his 11 appearances, only three have been solid. None of those have come since the end of April. His ERA in May and June is 8.82, and he's allowed four earned runs or more in five of his six starts during that span.
Worse, Lackey has now had five starts in 2011 in which his earned runs allowed exceeded his innings pitched.
From any angle, John Lackey is an unacceptable solution.
Tim Wakefield has excelled as a spot starter this year. Andrew Miller acquitted himself well in his debut. Now healthy, Felix Doubront is holding his own in Pawtucket. It's time for a change.
Give Lackey a temporary stay in the bullpen. Put him back on the D.L. with an injury, real or imagined. Or simply bench him until he gives some signs that he's capable of contributing. But do something. Waiting this out isn't working.
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