Lackey couldn't find enough right stuff or good fortune, and the Angels were flattened by the Rays, 9-5.
"It's a little different these days," Lackey said, sizing up the big picture that shows a 100-win Angels team from 2008 scuffling along at one game above .500 and chasing front-running Texas in the American League West. "It's gotten a little different every year."
Asked what the Angels needed to do to take flight, Lackey pointed inward.
"I could pitch better," he said. "That would help. There's a lot of time left. It's definitely possible, and I definitely think we could do it."
Lackey had won nine of his previous 10 career decisions against Tampa Bay, but that clearly didn't bother the Rays. If anything, it seemed to inspire them.
"It's a different ballclub," Rays manager Joe Maddon pointed out, referring to Lackey's history against Tampa Bay. "Guys in here have no interest in that negative stuff."
After going quietly in the first inning and falling three runs down in the second, the Rays erupted for five runs in the bottom half of the inning, breaking bats and finding open spaces along the way.
"I was throwing good sinkers and they were finding holes," Lackey said. "I'm not saying the whole thing was good. Let's be honest. They took advantage of bad pitches and scrapped and battled on some good pitches, too."
After Bobby Abreu doubled and was thrown out at home in the first by left fielder Carl Crawford on Vladimir Guerrero's line-drive single, the Angels seized a three-run lead in the second against Jeff Niemann.
An RBI double into the right-field corner by Gary Matthews Jr. and two-run triple to the right-center gap by Chone Figgins came after Maicer Izturis' walk and Mike Napoli's single had kick-started the inning.
After Figgins, anticipating a pitch in the dirt, was picked off third by catcher Dioner Navarro on a quick throw to end the inning, Lackey yielded three straight singles to open the bottom half. One, by Ben Zobrist, came with the barrel of his bat flying in the direction of the mound as the ball found the hole on the right side.
Willy Aybar, who would launch a two-run homer in the fifth, put another ball through the right side for the first run, and Gabe Gross followed with an RBI double past first. An infield out, two more singles and a wild pitch left the Rays with a two-run lead.
"They rolled that 4-hole a couple of times and put on a clinic running the bases," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, Lackey having dropped to 1-2 in his sixth start of a frustrating season.
"I don't think John's stuff was that bad, but there were some mistakes that were hit."
A solo homer the opposite way by Carlos Pena, his 18th, was followed by another run on a throwing error charged to Figgins at third. It came on a Navarro roller after a single by Zobrist and a walk.
"It was a little of everything," Lackey said when asked about his frustration level. "I definitely felt pretty good to start the game. Everything that could happen wrong, happened. On good pitches, they managed to get infield hits, and I threw a bad pitch and they hit it hard."
Getting through the fifth with 98 pitches, Lackey was charged with nine runs, eight earned, on 11 hits and two walks, striking out two hitters.
"I definitely expect more of myself," Lackey said.
On the bright side, the Angels' beleaguered bullpen held up well in the wake of the big man's exit.
Rich Thompson delivered two perfect innings, striking out three men. Justin Speier followed with a scoreless inning, striking out two.
"He's got his fastball and cutter, and his curveball is breaking really well," Scioscia said of Thompson, whose 1.29 ERA could have him moving up the bullpen chain. "Rich has jumped up on our radar."
Niemann, coming off a two-hit shutout of the Royals, didn't last long enough to gain credit for a win. The big right-hander departed after 3 2/3 innings having allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits and three walks.
The Angels scored twice in the fourth to hasten Niemann's exit. After Howard Kendrick walked on a 3-1 pitch near his head, Figgins singled, and both advanced on Gross' throwing error in right.
After Bobby Abreu's sacrifice fly, Juan Rivera greeted reliever Lance Cormier with an RBI single. But Cormier settled in and worked 2 1/3 scoreless innings to pick up the win, moving to 1-1.
The Angels look to Ervin Santana, coming off a stellar performance in Detroit, to give them the series on Thursday night. He'll face young southpaw David Price and his top-shelf stuff.
After sitting out Wednesday night's game on the artificial surface, Torii Hunter is expected to be back in center field for the Angels.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.