SEATTLE -- As usual, Aaron Cook needed some perseverance to get to this point of the season. But now that he's here, the righty is thoroughly enjoying the ride.
Taking his second turn in the rotation since returning from the disabled list, Cook was downright masterful in leading the Red Sox to a 5-0 victory over the Mariners on Friday night at Safeco Field.
Equal parts efficient and dominant, Cook mowed through the Mariners as if they weren't even there.
The right-hander reeled off arguably the best performance of his career -- a two-hit shutout which required only 81 pitches.
Cook faced 28 batters, just one over the minimum. He walked none and struck out two.
"I got into a really good rhythm early with [catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia]," said Cook. "I was commanding the ball down in the zone and I knew they were trying to be aggressive, so I was just trying to make sure I was staying at the bottom of the zone. Guys were playing great defense behind me."
As in any solid Cook outing, his sinker carried him.
"He just did what he always does -- sinker, sinker, sinker," Saltalamacchia said. "Try and get out of the inning with the least amount of pitches as possible. That's what he does. He's a great, great pitcher. He's done it a long time."
Pitch count research goes back to 1988, and over that span, no Red Sox pitcher has thrown a nine-inning complete game or shutout in 81 pitches or less.
It was the fewest pitches by a Boston starter in a complete-game shutout since Roger Clemens fired a one-hit, 86-pitch game on Sept. 10, 1988, against the Indians.
This gem was reminiscent of some of the other top games Cook pitched in his career. On July 1, 2008, Cook fired a 79-pitch shutout against the Padres. And on July 25, 2007, he reeled off a mere 74 pitches in a complete-game masterpiece against San Diego.
Adrian Gonzalez, who started both of those games at first base for the Padres, was glad to be playing behind Cook in this one.
"I was telling some of the guys, I've been on Seattle's side of that," Gonzalez said. "It's not fun."
How does Cook explain his efficiency?
"I've got a short attention span, so I try to work quick," quipped Cook. "I'm the type of pitcher, I know I'm not going to get a bunch of strikeouts and I want to really just pound the zone early, get them swinging at the pitches I want them to swing at, and not let them get comfortable and into hitters' counts. That's usually a good recipe for a low-pitch game."
Through the first five innings, he faced the minimum of 15 batters, giving up just one hit, an infielder grounder by Ichiro Suzuki that Dustin Pedroia fielded across the middle.
After seven innings, Cook had thrown 64 pitches.
"I felt like I caught five innings tonight," Saltalamacchia said. "I looked up at the board, it was the seventh inning, and it was like, 'Really? All right.' It's fun. It's fun to sit there and put one finger down knowing it's his go-to pitch, it's his money, not too much thinking. Just put it down. It's a great pitch. It's tough to try to pull that pitch, and this is a great park for him, because it's not going to go anywhere."
The Mariners didn't get their second hit until the eighth, a single off the bat of John Jaso. Thanks to Pedroia making a diving stop and starting a 4-6-3 double play to end that inning, Cook was still just one batter over the minimum.
The Red Sox made sure his effort stand up by going on a power surge. Will Middlebrooks, Cody Ross, Daniel Nava and Saltalamacchia all launched homers, a welcomed breakout after Boston was blanked by Felix Hernandez on Thursday.
Overall, things are as good as they've been at any point this season for the 41-36 Red Sox. They've won 10 out of 13 and 12 out of 16, moving 5 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the American League East.
Held to no runs in the first 13 innings of this series, Middlebrooks loudly ended that drought by walloping a solo homer to left, his 10th of the season.
"You know, we went about 12 innings being shutout in this ballpark and hit some balls right to the wall and I saw a little frustration in the dugout until Will one-handed one into the steps over the fence," said manager Bobby Valentine. "It seemed like everyone loosened up after that."
Ross followed by launching a blast to left, giving the Red Sox back-to-back homers for the fourth time this season. And with two outs, Nava gave Boston three blats in an inning for the first time this season by ripping one over the wall in right, giving Cook a 3-0 lead.
As for the power, it just kept coming for Boston. David Ortiz led off the sixth with a double and All-Star hopeful Saltalamacchia scorched a two-run homer to right, No. 15 on the season.
"I feel good. I feel good at the plate," said Saltalamacchia. "I'm just trying to do what I can at the plate. We had a situation with David on second, no outs, I'm trying to get him over. He left a pitch up, I stayed inside of it and I was able to put it out of a pretty good-sized ballpark. It's just everything is going well. I started with the same approach I've had all season, not trying to change it, and things are working."
For Cook, everything was working. It helped erase the pain of May 5, when he suffered a laceration of his right knee in just his second inning of his first start for the Red Sox. Cook wouldn't return for another seven weeks. His career has been frequented by such unwanted breaks in the action.
But he seems to always be rewarded when he comes back.
"It means a lot, to go out there and prove I'm where I want to be, where I was trying to get back to -- be an effective pitcher and give our team a chance to win games and be efficient," said Cook.
Even Cook would be hard-pressed to be any more efficient in future outings for Boston than he was Friday.