BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox entered the 2011 season with what was expected to be one of the most potent starting rotations in baseball.
That strength has been weakened over the first half of the season with significant injuries to Daisuke Matsuzaka (elbow), John Lackey (elbow) and Clay Buchholz (back), but the Red Sox remain in a close race with the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays for the top spot in the American League East.
Matsuzaka recently had Tommy John surgery, Lackey already made one trip to the disabled list and continues to struggle with his consistency, while Buchholz is headed to North Carolina at some point this week to seek a second opinion for his lingering back pain.
Lackey made his 13th start of the season Monday afternoon against Toronto at Fenway Park, and it got ugly quick as the Blue Jays finished with a 9-7 victory.
For the first time in his Red Sox career, Lackey (5-8) failed to make it through the third inning after allowing seven earned runs on nine hits. As he exited the mound and took the slow walk to the dugout, he heard loud boos once again.
Due to Lackey's inconsistency all season, Red Sox manager Terry Francona was asked after the game whether the right-hander has a health issue.
"We've been through everything. We put him on the disabled list because of the elbow," Francona said. "His velocity is pretty much staying consistent. I think at times, movement and location is what's probably bothering him. It's consistency and things like that."
Lackey says he's healthy, but either way, the Red Sox are not getting the type of consistent outings they need from him. He's been dealing with some off-field issues, but he continues to come to work every day, which has not gone unnoticed behind closed doors in the clubhouse.
His batterymate, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, attested to Lackey's work ethic.
"Lack's the same guy every day. He comes in here and busts his tail, and every game he pitches, we know we've got a chance," Saltalamacchia said.
"He's just grinding, man. That's something Lack does every day. He competes and keeps us in the ballgame."
When it was evident it was going to be another difficult day for Lackey, his teammates and fellow pitchers in the bullpen knew they needed to pick him up.
Reliever Dan Wheeler replaced Lackey and tossed 2 2/3 perfect innings, retiring all eight batters he faced. That gave the Red Sox an opportunity to chip away at the Toronto lead, and Boston scored four runs in the fifth to cut the deficit to 7-4.
"I just tried to minimize the damage, go out there, and throw strikes and get as many outs as I could," Wheeler said. "Lack had a tough one and he's been battling out there, so you just want to give as many innings as you can."
Wheeler has been solid his past few outings by throwing quality strikes.
"He threw the ball very well," Francona said. "He threw all strikes. We actually had a chance, but those runs they added on in the end were huge runs. We gave it a run, but that's a tough way to win when they score that much early and then they add on; it makes it difficult."
The Blue Jays scored two runs off reliever Alfredo Aceves, and despite Boston pushing three runs across in the bottom of the eighth to make it 9-7, the Sox would get no closer.
After the game, Aceves explained that once the phone rang in the bullpen during Lackey's struggles, the relief staff knew if it could contain the damage, and given Boston's offensive prowess, there was still time for the Red Sox to pull off a comeback.
"It wasn't a bad day [for Lackey]; it was a tough day. It wasn't his," Aceves said. "He's a good, good player. He's a fighter. He doesn't like to lose. He likes to win. Every single guy in the bullpen, we support each other. Even with the seven-run [deficit], we believed we could come back. We always believe."
"Absolutely. Every time," he said of a possible comeback. "Especially with our offense, but we just came up a little short today. We battled right to the end, and that's the most impressive thing is that this group never quits."
With Matsuzaka gone, Buchholz's back in question and Lackey's continued struggles, the rest of the starters, including Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield need to keep producing in order to keep the Sox successful.
When the starters struggle, as Lackey did Monday, the load shifts to the bullpen.
"The bullpen is always important," Wheeler said. "We've had our ups and downs, but overall we've got a great group out there. We still have a lot of baseball left, and you really can't focus too much on today. We're a group that's going to go out there and battle, and I think we'll be OK at the end of the year."
The Red Sox have always been a resilient group under Francona, and there's not one person in the clubhouse who will point a finger at Lackey and blame him for any loss.
"We lost," Adrian Gonzalez said. "We didn't lose because of Johnny. We lost because we lost. He's giving it all he's got out there. I'm going to stick behind him and I know every time he takes the mound we've got a really good chance to win, and that's with everybody."
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.