Lackey goes on a roll

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For the first time in more than a month, Boston Red Sox starter John Lackey has won back-to-back games.

Yes, you read that correctly.

The veteran right-hander struggled at times early against the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday at Tropicana Field, but he settled in and finished 5 2/3 innings and allowed four runs (three earned) on 10 hits to help the Sox to a 9-5 win. He also struck out seven and walked only one while throwing a total of 107 pitches, 74 for strikes.

Lackey has been inconsistent in 2011, but he produced his best outing of the year and snapped a three-game losing streak right before the All-Star break. He worked 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the Orioles at Fenway Park and allowed a season-low three hits with one walk and seven strikeouts.

He's starting to throw strikes. He's getting swings and misses. He's getting ground balls. More importantly, he's winning.

"We would love for him to get hot," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "That would be one of the best things that could happen for us."

Lackey is showing signs of coming around, which would be a major factor for the Red Sox since fellow pitchers Jon Lester (lat strain) and Clay Buchholz (back strain) remain on the disabled list. With Lackey's last start prior to the break, the four-game hiatus during the week and now with his outing Saturday, he's hoping the second half will be better than the first.

"It was definitely nice to shut it down for a few days," Lackey said. "What happened [in the first half] happened and you can't do anything about that, but I'm going to go out there and compete my butt off and try to win every time I go out there."

That's what he did on Saturday and he was animated as ever while doing it.

Lackey's body language during his outings may be a little less desirable than many would appreciate. When something doesn't go his way, he'll throw up his arms in disgust, roll his eyes and shake his head. Sometimes it's subtle, sometimes it's not.

Well, he's not about to change the way he pitches.

"You only get, if you're healthy, 33 times to help the team and you've got to take them pretty damn serious," he said.

He was extremely animated in the first inning of Saturday's game. Lackey felt like he made some decent pitches and was able to initiate a few ground balls, but a couple of them were perfectly placed or mishandled defensively. He surrendered three runs in the first, but only two were earned as Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro committed a throwing error on the first play of the Rays' first, allowing Johnny Damon to reach base. He later scored the Rays' first run.

Lackey did get some help defensively, as second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Scutaro turned two double plays, including with the bases loaded and one out in the second inning.

Besides a solo home run by the Rays' Matt Joyce in the fifth inning, Lackey finished strong and didn't appear too happy when Francona came out to get the ball with two outs and two runners on while Boston was leading 6-4 in the sixth inning.

"Yeah, I felt like I could have gotten that guy out, but looking back on it, and I've been around long enough, we had a two-run lead and Tito probably protected me a little bit," Lackey said. "I respect that, too."

Francona said he didn't even notice Lackey's mannerisms.

"I don't pay much attention," he said. "That's why I make the move before I get out there because there can't be a discussion. I need to do what I'm going to do, so I always do it before I get out there."

Prior to his last two outings, there were more questions than answers with Lackey, especially given the fact he spent time on the DL because of an elbow strain. But now he's content with his arm strength the past few starts, saying it's the best he's felt all season.

"This is the first real stretch of arm building I've had," Lackey said. "I had two starts [in April], then had 10 days off. Then I got hurt and had 15 days off. Now I've finally had some starts in a row to get some arm strength built up."

During all of his adversity in the first half of the season, his teammates have always stood behind him and felt that if he could get on a roll, Lackey could roll off a bunch of wins. The Red Sox are starting to see that.

"He looks good," Pedroia said. "He was attacking the zone. There were a lot of broken-bat hits and that's happened a lot to him this year. He's going to grind it out. We've got a lot of games to go and he's got a lot of starts left. He's going to be fine."

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.