BOSTON — Having already thrown 98 pitches, he would face one more batter, with two runners on, one out in the sixth inning and Boston leading, 1-0.

Guy named Alex Rodriguez came to bat.

This is why John Henry signs those sizable checks, paid to the order of John Lackey.

Lackey, 31, the man to whom Boston committed $82.5 million over five years, threw an 0-1 fastball down in the zone. All Rodriguez could do was pound it into the ground, where third baseman Adrian Beltre started the 5-4-3 double play.

Inning over. Reputation intact.

Lackey is one tough pitcher, the kind Boston needs to overcome the obstacles it faces — like the New York Yankees.

“I was able to make a couple of big pitches in some tough spots, kind of hold them down a little bit,” Lackey said.

In a season-opening series when neither Josh Beckett nor Jon Lester reached the sixth inning, Lackey completed six, holding the Yankees to three hits, two walks and one hit batter.

“I would have liked to have let him pitch all night,” Boston Manager Terry Francona said. “He changed speeds, stayed down in the zone. He did terrific.”

With Lackey dealing, the only Boston concern Wednesday night was the one run produced against Andy Pettitte of New York.

The one run came on a David Ortiz RBI line single to right field (and, I know, you never doubted Big Papi for a moment).

On Wednesday night, that one run would not be enough for a Lackey victory, let alone a Boston win.

In the seventh inning, Scott Schoeneweis did what he was supposed to and struck out two left-handers.

But in between them, switch-hitter Jorge Posada doubled. He scored on Nick Swisher’s single to right.

So, no W for Lackey. Just a 0.00 ERA and hope for more to come.

“There definitely was some added pressure,” Lackey said. “Want to win the series and start off and make a good impression.”

Lackey is a joy to watch because he pitches efficiently and quickly. And in this era of four-hour Red Sox-Yankees games, Lackey wasted little time.

No pacing around the mound, wiping his brow and rubbing the hide off a baseball. Lackey delivers, walks back to the mound, receives the ball back and is ready to go.

If you were watching at home, there were few replays between Lackey’s pitches because there was no time.

Conversely, NESN could run replays, commercials and an episode of “Charlie Moore Outdoors” between pitches by Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Lackey normally is all over the strike zone, but he seemed to get his pitch count up against the proudly patient Yankees.

Of his 100 pitches, 58 were strikes.

If you play for Boston, it must be fun playing behind a fast-paced guy like Lackey.

And it must be comforting to know that Lackey has their back.

When Pettitte hit Kevin Youkilis on the top of his helmet in the fifth inning, Lackey began the sixth by hitting Derek Jeter with a 2-2 fastball in the ribs.

Sure, the ball could have slipped out of Lackey’s hand — why wait until the fifth pitch and why put a runner on with a one-run lead?

“You think I’m trying to hit a guy in a one-run game to lead off the inning?” Lackey said. “I’ve been around a little longer than that.”

Still, Lackey seems the kind of guy ready to protect his teammates.

And even after hitting Jeter and walking Mark Teixeira, Lackey protected the lead.

Lackey wasn’t gloating after the game. “You always want a team win,” he said.

But this move to Boston is growing on him.

“Great atmosphere,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun to be on this side, for sure.”

As for his first Red Sox-Yankees series, “All the hype is right,” he said. “Three really good games and two great teams. It’s going to be a battle all year.”

It’s going to be a battle for Boston, but having John Lackey has to help.

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at:

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