BOSTON -- When Red Sox manager John Farrell came to the mound with one out in the seventh inning, starter John Lackey held the ball in his right hand and hesitated for a moment before walking to the Red Sox dugout.
He didn't protest the move. With runners on first and second and a run already in to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead, three lefties were due up and the Sox had lefty-killer Matt Thornton ready to come in. A switch made sense.
But Lackey couldn't be blamed for pausing a moment. He felt strong. He didn't mind the afternoon's sweltering temperatures . ("I'm from Texas. I've played football in worse than that," he said.) And he already had wiggled out of trouble in various instances over the course of the day. What was one more?
Thornton came in, though, and allowed two RBI singles, making a comeback against New York's dominant righty Huroki Kuroda all the more unlikely. A short-lived offensive surge in the bottom half of the seventh inning was not enough, and the Red Sox fell in the second game of their three-game set with the Yankees, 5-2.
Though Lackey broke a six-start streak of pitching at least seven innings, he believed his latest outing was a continuation of how he has pitched over the course of the last month, during which he has arguably been Boston's most effective starter.
"I felt pretty good, man," he said. "Not too different than the last few (starts), really. Had a couple doubles, then a couple of balls kind of fall in behind the doubles that cost me a couple runs. Their guy pitched really good."
Lackey struck out seven Yankees and threw 97 pitches, his lowest total since he came away with a no-decision in a June 10 win over the Rays. The four earned runs he allowed were the most he has allowed since that same start over a month ago.
After the game, Lackey said that this was maybe a day when his numbers didn't necessarily indicate how well he pitched. Though he was tagged with the loss, he oozed confidence.
"I've had confidence for a while now," he said. "I've been throwing the ball pretty good for a couple of months so confidence isn't an issue."
There were times when he showed it on Saturday.
Lackey's fastball touched 95 miles-per-hour into the fourth inning. In the sixth, he struck out Yankees designated Hitter Travis Hafner with Lyle Overbay on second after falling behind in the count, 3-0. With a fastball-slider-fastball sequence, Hafner was put away to keep the score at 1-0.
It was the kind of moment that excited Lackey's manager.
"Oh he's a hell of a competitor," Farrell said. "And a guy with very good stuff. I thought today there were a number of 3-2 counts where he would regroup, make a key pitch to get a big strikeout . . . It's his experience. Now that he's completely healthy, he's got a lot of weapons he can go to."
Clay Buchholz hasn't pitched since June 8. Jon Lester has regressed after a strong start to the season, and his first start after the All-Star break has been pushed back. With every passing start, it's Lackey who looks more and more like the Red Sox ace.
But he hasn't heaped additional pressure onto his own shoulders, thinking he has to carry the pitching staff as it works through its accumulating issues.
"No. Not at all," he said. "I feel pressure to do well every time I go out there. As a starting pitcher you only get max 30-something tries to try to help your team, and you want to take advantage of those. They're precious opportunities, and you try to take advantage of every one of them."
Boston's lineup couldn't take advantage of Lackey's most recent solid start, but against the Yankees, he continued to show that he's healthy and -- as unlikely as it may sound given his last two years in town -- he continued to prove himself as the team's most reliable starter at a time when it's desperate for one.
That in and of itself is a not-so-insignificant victory for the Red Sox on a day when they lost a game in the standings to New York.