BOSTON -- John Lackey saved his best for the postseason, but as has often been the case this year, his best wasn't good enough.
Lackey was a tough-luck loser on Thursday night after the Red Sox fell, 4-2, to the Cardinals, who evened the World Series at one game apiece.
"I felt good tonight," said Lackey, who allowed three runs over 6 1/3 innings. "I felt like I had probably a little better fastball than my last start. [Cardinals starter Michael Wacha] was pitching well. The margin for error is really slim this time of year, and I kind of let one go tonight, but we'll be back the next one."
For the third time this postseason, Lackey was removed before the 100-pitch mark, exiting after 95. Was it too early? Statistically, probably not, and manager John Farrell certainly didn't think so.
Farrell had made a similar move in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, when Lackey threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings, allowed just four hits and struck out eight but was taken off the mound against his wishes while the Red Sox had a one-run lead.
In that ALCS contest, Lackey was replaced by Craig Breslow, who had allowed five earned runs over his last 44 1/3 innings, and who escaped that outing without trouble. Junichi Tazawa followed, and Koji Uehara was the finisher. Game over. No damage done.
On Thursday night, however, Farrell's decision backfired, though it's hard to blame a manager for bringing in a left-handed reliever to face the left-handed Daniel Descalso, who had a .183 average vs. lefties compared with .250 vs. righties in the regular season.
Lackey walked David Freese and gave up a hit to Jon Jay before Farrell sent Breslow to face Descalso. This time Breslow didn't get it done, walking Descalso before Matt Carpenter's sacrifice fly scored two on an error-laden play. It was Breslow's first blown save in more than a month.
"I thought John Lackey threw the ball very well," Farrell said. "The leadoff walk starts to get things going for them. After the base hit to Jay, we felt like we were in a pretty good situation for a matchup."
But in the end, Lackey took another loss he might not have deserved in a year full of many.
After a 10-13 season, Lackey became just the 21st pitcher since the turn of the millennium to have an ERA as low as 3.52 and still have at least 13 losses. Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda and White Sox starter Chris Sale were also victims of the same losing bug in 2013.
He's felt unlucky, and he probably deserves to feel that way, though it was hard to escape the feeling that luck was finally on his side when David Ortiz homered in the bottom of the sixth inning to give the Red Sox a one-run lead.
Boston could hardly muster any offense against 22-year-old rookie Wacha, and Ortiz, who hit his fifth postseason home run of 2013, was the uplifting push at the perfect time. Lackey had thrown 80 pitches at that point, 61 for strikes. He was efficient, but his time was coming. Ortiz's homer gave him a chance at a win.
Lackey went back out for the top of the seventh inning and struck out Allen Craig on an outside pitch that left Craig looking, but not swinging. Lackey then allowed two to reach base before Farrell called for the bullpen.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said that Lackey's pitches in the later innings were just as effective as those early in the game, but the Red Sox have had faith in the late-inning relievers.
"I thought [Lackey] was still sharp," Saltalamacchia said. "He still had good stuff. Like I said in the ALDS, it's a situation where the lineup's coming back around for the third time, and you've got to make that decision. Our bullpen's been great for us all year. Nine times out of 10, you stick with that decision."
Lackey put up less of a fight on the mound this time. He had left with a lead. That's all the Red Sox could have asked for.
"He pitched great," Ortiz said. "He gave everything he had. He kept the game under control. There's no better than that."
Lackey took the loss for a 14th time this season. Maybe he deserved better, but as long as the Red Sox win the World Series, he promises not to care.
"At this point it's not about me," he said. "Who really cares who gets the win or loss next to their name? We're trying to win four games, trying to win a ring."