Red Sox right-hander John Lackey kept his neck clean and the box score even cleaner in his most recent start, giving up only one run and striking out 11 in eight innings against the Yankees on Wednesday.
The story of Boston's 5-1 win centered on the ejection of New York starter Michael Pineda in the second inning due to a foreign substance on his neck. While Pineda's early exit got the Yankees' bullpen plenty of work, Lackey let Red Sox relievers relax.
"I was thinking about trying to give the bullpen a rest," Lackey said. "We've got some guys down there who've been worked pretty good the last week or so, and trying to get those guys a little bit of a breather and win a ballgame."
Lackey had made the bullpen work in his previous two starts, not making it through six innings in either outing against the Yankees on April 12 or the Orioles on April 18. He also gave up six earned runs in each contest for back-to-back losses.
"Yeah, I mean, last start against the Yankees, he kind of struggled," Mike Napoli said of Lackey. "You could kind of see him being in here [in the clubhouse] that he wanted to go out there and do good tonight. It's huge overall, because he helped our bullpen with eight strong innings and he came back from two tough starts. Just overall, it was really good for our team."
As Lackey aims to channel the pitcher who began the season with back-to-back quality starts and shut down the Yankees in his latest start, Rays left-hander Erik Bedard hopes to exhibit improved control against the Red Sox.
Bedard walked four and threw 41 pitches in a three-run first that put Tampa Bay in an early hole during a 9-7 loss to Minnesota on Thursday. The southpaw lasted just four innings as he took the defeat and saw his ERA climb to 7.45.
"I couldn't really throw strikes in the first inning," Bedard said. "I was just trying to battle and throw it in the strike zone, but I had a couple of walks in the first and I got better as the game progressed."
Rays manager Joe Maddon hopes his ballclub can reverse last season's 7-12 record against the Red Sox.
"That's not good. A lot of them were really, really close games," Maddon said. "It's become that thing where the games are very close both ways, and it's about that laser-thin line of winning and losing at the end. We did not cross that line very well last year."
The Rays will be arriving to Boston early Tuesday morning after dropping three of four to the White Sox in Chicago.
"I always love going up there [to Boston]," Maddon said. "I think it's a great venue to play. But you don't look for anybody to give you inspiration. Inspiration should be there every day, regardless of who you're playing or where it is. Just get ready to play. Go play. So I don't care where we're playing and who we're playing against. I just want us to go out there with the same mindset, and we have."
Rays: Zobrist finding his way on base
Second baseman Ben Zobrist keeps getting on base atop the lineup, recording two hits each in the past two games. Zobrist has 11 multihit games and his 16 walks are tied with teammate Matt Joyce for the seventh-best mark in the American League.
He has reached base safely in 23 of 26 games and has scored 19 runs. Zobrist will look to keep his good play going against Lackey, a pitcher he has succeeded against in the past.
Zobrist is batting .407 (11-for-27) with three doubles, four RBIs, five walks and only three strikeouts in his career against Lackey.
Red Sox: Napoli dynamite in middle of Sox order
Napoli has been cleaning up in the cleanup spot of Boston's order, posting team-best numbers with a .304 (28-for-92) batting average, five homers, 15 RBIs and ranking second among the Red Sox with 12 walks and a .940 OPS.
Napoli homered four times and drove in 27 runs in a stellar April last year, but he has improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio in the season's opening month in 2014. He has 12 walks to 28 strikeouts this year compared to six walks and 40 strikeouts in '13.
• Evan Longoria is batting .323 (10-for-31) with two homers, three doubles, five RBIs, three walks and four strikeouts against Lackey.
• A.J. Pierzynski, who finished 0-for-4 with a strikeout in the designated hitter spot Sunday, is batting .429 (9-for-21) with two home runs and four RBIs against Bedard.
• This is the first meeting between the Red Sox and the Rays since the clubs finished first and second in the AL East last season.
"They kept us out of first place last year. They definitely did," Maddon said.
Joe Morgan is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.