Seeking an explanation for John Lackey's nightmarish season?

Try this: He hasn't been healthy.

By now, it's well-known that the Red Sox right-hander received a cortisone shot last month to soothe his strained elbow, then spent the next three weeks on the disabled list. But because he lugged a 7.36 ERA, worst among all pitchers in the majors with at least 50 innings, into last night's start against the Phillies, it was worth wondering if his elbow remains a problem.

"I don't know," Lackey said. "What'd it look like?"

Just fine, that's what.

Lackey allowed a leadoff homer to longtime nemesis Raul Ibanez in the seventh inning and absorbed a hard-luck 2-1 loss due primarily to the Sox' suddenly anemic offense mustering only five hits against Phillies rookie Vance Worley. It was the Sox' sixth loss in seven games during a cruel interleague stretch.

But, for a change, the positives far outweighed the negatives for Lackey.

For starters, he pitched into the eighth inning for the second time in three starts. Lackey allowed eight hits, struck out five, and between Ibanez' RBI double in the second inning and his decisive home run, he retired 15-of-17 batters. He was economical, too, throwing only 90 pitches in 72/3 innings.

Lackey even drove in the Red Sox' run with a two-out double in the fifth.

"He was great," Dustin Pedroia said. "They have a great lineup. He threw the ball well, got deep into the game, and still had the pitch count down. He did great. It stinks that we couldn't get it together for him."

The Red Sox have been waiting for Lackey to get it together. In five starts since coming off the disabled list, he's 3-2 with a 5.23 ERA that was inflated by his 31/3-inning dud in the rain at Fenway against the San Diego Padres last Wednesday.