Lackey, Hughes present many questions
Red Sox, Yankees rely on scuffling right-handers for stability
BOSTON -- The Red Sox finally won on Friday despite another shaky performance from starter John Lackey, and the Yankees lost because Phil Hughes again couldn't find his velocity or the strike zone.
Though it was a much-needed 9-6 victory for the Red Sox in their home opener at Fenway Park after an 0-6 start, Lackey's five innings of six-run, seven-hit work did nothing to solve what could amount to a major flaw in Boston's rotation as the season moves forward.
"Obviously, I didn't pitch very well," said Lackey, who earned the victory because the Red Sox pounded Hughes for six runs on seven hits and two walks in two innings. "Five innings? I don't set my goals that low. I definitely want to do better than that."
Hughes is putting the Yankees in a similar position. Beginning only his second full season as a starter, the right-hander hasn't pitched well consistently since an 11-2 record and a 3.65 ERA in last season's first half earned Hughes a selection to the American League All-Star team. Beyond that, he's 7-7 with a 5.75 ERA in his last 17 regular-season appearances, 15 of them starts.
"I know something is wrong," said Hughes, whose ERA soared to 16.50 after only two starts and one loss. "I'm going out there and trying to make up for [the loss of velocity] somehow. I'm also not locating the ball as well as I can. There are just a lot of issues goings on right now."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi points out that Hughes, at 24, is still learning how to pitch in the Major Leagues. He was used mostly in the bullpen in 2009, and last year was the right-hander's first spent regularly in the rotation. He finished 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA in 31 appearances, 29 of them starts.
The Yankees babied Hughes late last season when his innings count reached the 150-160 range, skipping his turn a couple of times. Girardi said he's still intent on running Hughes out there in five days and hasn't lost confidence in the righty.
"He took giant steps last year," Girardi said. "I'm not ready to say after two starts that those giant steps are gone."
The same can't be said of the 32-year-old Lackey, whose career spans nine seasons, the first eight of which were spent with the Angels. Lackey is in the second year of a five-year, $82.5 million free-agent contract he signed with the Red Sox before the 2010 season and will earn $15.25 million for each of the next four years.
Lackey is 15-12 with Boston for that money and did nothing to endear himself on Friday, when he allowed Alex Rodriguez's 616th career homer, walked two men, hit a batter and tossed a wild pitch. Lackey threw an uneconomical 91 pitches, and if it's any consolation, his ERA dropped from 22.09 to 15.58.
"He certainly didn't locate like he needs to," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of Lackey. "A lot of his pitches, it didn't look like he finished them. He left them in the middle. Two walks, a hit batsmen. All three scored. Against that lineup, you've got to make them earn everything they get, because they're that good anyway."
Because of finances, Francona doesn't have much of a choice except to start Lackey every fifth day and hope he resembles the right-hander who defeated the Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series and earned a reputation as a gamer.
Big bucks tie the Red Sox to three-fifths of their rotation. They owe Lackey, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka $141 million spaced over the next four years: Lackey, $61 million through 2014; Beckett, $68 million through '14; and Matsuzaka, $20 million through '12.
Last year, because of injuries, Boston earned 29 wins out of that group and missed the playoffs. So forget the seven-year, $142 million free-agent deal the Red Sox just gave to .143-hitting outfielder Carl Crawford. If Boston doesn't get peak performance out of its big three veteran starters, the team isn't going anywhere again in the AL East.
The usually heavy-spending Yankees have their own problems with Hughes, who is earning $2.7 million this year and is arbitration-eligible after the season. With Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia at the back of the rotation, there are few replacements. Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman have exhibited all kinds of patience bringing Hughes along, and right now, that isn't going to change.
In 2008, Hughes was part of a young core of pitchers that included Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain. Hughes cracked a rib that year and spent much of the season on the disabled list as Chamberlain starred as a late-season setup man to closer Mariano Rivera. In '09, Hughes was placed in the bullpen while Chamberlain struggled as a starter. During Spring Training '10, after Kennedy was traded to the D-backs, Hughes won a starting job over Chamberlain, who was sent back to the bullpen.
Hughes went from tossing 34 innings in the big leagues in 2008 and 86 innings in '09 to 176 1/3 last season. It was a big leap and may explain a tired arm and loss of velocity. Hughes said on Friday that he needs to improve his arm strength. In San Diego, the Padres experienced a September drop-off from young right-hander Mat Latos after a brilliant run. Latos opened this season on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder.
"I think you can run into a wall when you stretch a young pitcher out," said Girardi, a catcher during his playing career. "But this kid's got talent. Just because you get through one year as a starter doesn't mean you have everything figured out. Teams are going to adjust to you, and you've got to make pitches. I think he'll be fine. I mean, I'm not planning on changing the rotation."
Neither are the Red Sox. Not for now. Not for the foreseeable future.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.