The Anaheim Angels called John Lackey to the majors a few months into the 2002 season. The rookie righthander went on to win the seventh game of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants.
At the age of 23, Lackey rode a float through Disneyland surrounded by adoring fans.
The postseason became a regular stop on Lackey’s schedule, the Angels advancing five times over the seven seasons that followed. They twice made it to the American League Championship Series with Lackey as their ace.
“I got pretty used to pitching in October,” he said.
That’s why, as Lackey prepares to start Game 2 of the American League Division Series for the Red Sox Saturday, he’s pausing to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.
Lackey left the Angels after the 2009 season, the team unwilling to meet his desire for a long-term contract. He signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Red Sox, believing he had latched onto another winner.
But he had instead joined a franchise in decline. The Red Sox made a series of ill-considered moves after Lackey and the Angels swept them in a 2009 Division Series. The Sox fell short of the playoffs in 2010, suffered a now-infamous September collapse in 2011, then finished in last place in 2012.
Lackey became one of the symbols of what had gone wrong. Fans booed him and Lackey’s angry exchanges with reporters caused team officials to wince. The competitive fire that served him so well earlier in his career now betrayed him.
Lackey’s right elbow, which troubled him on occasion with the Angels, blew out during the 2011 season, the ulnar collateral ligament tearing. He somehow finished out the season pitching in pain, but missed all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“Does it feel like a long time ago? In some ways yes and some ways no,” Lackey said. “It was pretty rough.”
Like the Red Sox, Lackey bounced back this season. He was 10-13 over 29 starts, a consistent lack of run support costing him perhaps six victories. Lackey had a 3.52 earned run average, his lowest since 2007.
“He gave us a chance to win the game almost every time he took the ball,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “You can’t really ask for more than that.”
That Lackey had surgery a month after the 2011 season aided his comeback. By the time this season started, his recovery was almost complete.
“I had a little extra time than some people. I had almost 18 months,” Lackey said. “That extra time definitely helped me as far as not having some of the valleys that other guys that I’ve talked to about it have had.
“They took it a little easy on me in spring training but I felt pretty normal from the start.”
Lackey also benefitted from the atmosphere new manager John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves created for the pitching staff.
The Red Sox improved how efficiently they used scouting reports and statistical analysis to prepare for games. There also was better communication with the pitchers and a renewed commitment to working between starts.
“Stability starts at the top, for sure,” Lackey said. “The way John came in and with his preparation, that stuff trickles down. And Juan’s positivity has been awesome. He knows what he’s talking about with the mechanics, but the positive reinforcement is big for us.
“We’re not getting mixed messages. Everybody has been on the same page since the first day of spring training. That makes it easy for us to know what to do. We know what is expected.”
Farrell thought Lackey aided his cause by losing a noticeable amount of weight during his year off.
“Once we saw how he reshaped his body, we thought that this was going to be a good year for him,” Farrell said. “That helped his ability to repeat his delivery more consistently. That has led to more consistent command, a lower number or walks.”
Lackey doesn’t buy that.
“It’s my arm being healthy,” he said. “To be honest, that stuff kind of angers me a little bit. I was never out of shape. My workouts now are pretty much the same as they’ve always been.
“Honestly, most of the guys who throw a lot of innings are bigger dudes. There’s definitely a possibility you can lose too much weight sometimes.”
There’s that fire again. But Lackey has improved on his public disposition, too. Always popular with his teammates, Lackey has smoothed out his relationship with Boston.
“I don’t know if it was about letting the past go,” Farrell said. “It was more about recognizing that the perception of him out there was not a good one and what could we do to help that along.
“It was going to have to start with how he pitched. We made some conscious efforts with how he deals with the media, how he interacts with the public. Those were things that were candidly discussed. That started in spring training.”
Relishing the moment
Lackey pitched some of his best games at Fenway Park, seven times making starts there in which he allowed one earned run or none. He won the fans over, game by game.
On those rare occasions this season when he didn’t pitch well, Lackey tempered his postgame comments.
“I respect John. He has a lot of passion,” Farrell said. “I’ll come out to the mound to get him and he’s cursing about it. But he’s not trying to show me up. He thinks of himself as a front-line starter and those guys want to go nine innings. You have to love that.”
Lackey is signed through the end of 2014. The Red Sox also hold an option for 2015 — at the league minimum — that vested when Lackey missed the 2012 season because of injury.
“You can foresee him being successful for years to come because of the style of pitcher he is,” said Farrell. “He can put the ball on the ground. Because he throws the ball on a downhill angle, he doesn’t rely on velocity as much.
“I thought his performance could be consistent this year and I think that will continue to be the case.”
Lackey is enjoying this season for reasons that go beyond performance. He has bonded with rotation mates Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, and Jake Peavy over topics like fantasy football and cowboy boots.
Lackey has learned to appreciate the moment after learning that success can be snatched away.
“I put in a lot of hard work and it’s nice that it paid off,” he said. “I’m having a blast. This is a great group of guys and winning makes everything better.
“There’s definitely a sense of wanting to soak it in a little but more. Who knows how many more times that you have?
“I haven’t been to the World Series in 11 years. It makes your realize how hard it is to get there. You really appreciate it now.”
But when Lackey slowly walks to the mound Saturday, the reflection will end.
“I’ll be trying to get the first dude out,” he said. “I’ll think about that other stuff when this run is over. Hopefully it will be a while.”
John Lackey this season became the first Red Sox pitcher since Tex Hughson 70 years ago to make at least 25 starts, have an ERA no higher than 3.60, a WHIP under 1.2, and a losing record. Lackey was hardly alone, though, with several tough-luck aces around baseball this year.
|Homer Bailey, Reds||32||11-12||3.49||1.124|
|Cole Hamels, Phillies||33||8-14||3.60||1.159|
|Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees||32||11-13||3.31||1.162|
|John Lackey, Red Sox||29||10-13||3.52||1.157|
|Chris Sale, White Sox||30||11-14||3.07||1.073|
|Ervin Santana, Royals||32||9-10||3.24||1.142|
|Stephen Strasburg, Nationals||30||8-9||3.00||1.049|
|Travis Wood, Cubs||32||9-12||3.10||1.145|