DETROIT — John Lackey is the poster boy for Team Redemption.
Nobody was more loathed coming into this season. Lackey got blamed for chicken and beer. He got blamed for Theo Epstein’s bloated payroll. He was blamed for the collapse of 2011. He snarled at the media on that night in New York, asking who called his cellphone. Fans wanted him out of town ASAP. Folks didn’t like the way Lackey showed up his fielders and his manager. Nobody liked the results. In 2011, Lackey had the worst season (6.41 ERA) of any Sox starter in history.
It was so bad that Lackey was questioned just for being in the dugout last year. Seriously. Lackey spent 2012 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and there was chatter about why the Sox would even have him around.
John Lackey was poison. He was overpaid, overweight, churlish, and a bad example for the Sox’ young pitchers. His five-year, $82.5 million contract, signed in December of 2009, signified the beginning of the decay of the Red Sox. Even Theo said it. Lackey was the symbol of throwing money at problems, putting TV ratings and instant gratification ahead of scouting and player development. That was the storyline.
Now everything has changed, and Tuesday at Comerica Park, Lackey had his finest hour in a Boston uniform. He beat the Detroit Tigers, 1-0, in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. He outpitched Justin Verlander, a former Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player. Lackey allowed four hits and zero walks, fanning eight before he was lifted (against his will) by manager John Farrell with two out and one aboard in the seventh.
“It was awesome, for sure,’’ said the Gomer Pyle soundalike. “I knew I was going to have to pitch pretty good today.’’
“He’s a guy with playoff experience,’’ said Farrell. “He’s pitched on the biggest stage the game has to offer. Poll any starting pitcher. They want that responsibility. There was no margin for error today.’’
All the themes have changed for Lackey. Now he is viewed as a great teammate who takes care of the clubhouse workers and the rest of the “little people” around Fenway. His teammates love hanging with him. He has an unsurpassed work ethic and has lost more weight than Lenny Clarke. Despite getting little run support, he pitched very well throughout the magical 2013 season.
When Farrell announced his rotation for the ALCS there was some suspicion that Lackey was being tossed into Game 3 as a sacrificial lamb. Verlander at home? Why waste Clay Buchholz on a game the Sox were going to lose?
Instead, Lackey proved to be better than the Tigers ace — the man who hadn’t surrendered a run in his previous four starts.
Imagine how Jim Leyland and the Tigers are feeling right now. They just put together one of the great back-to-back-to-back stretches of postseason starting pitching, and yet they are down, 2-1, in the series. The Red Sox are hitting .133 vs. Detroit and have command of the series. It is quite unbelievable.
“Some good pitching,’’ said Leyland, who is hearing the boos at home. “I thought Lackey and [Jarrod] Saltalamacchia were absolutely terrific. Great pitching and game-calling. Lackey changed speeds and made pitches all day long. That pretty much sums it up.’’
Lackey matched Verlander inning for inning, strikeout for strikeout. He gave up a pair of singles in the first but retired dangerous Victor Martinez on a fly to center to get out of the inning. That was all until Jhonny Peralta reached him for a leadoff double in the fifth. Lackey set down 10 straight before the Peralta double — five on strikeouts.
“They came out swinging,’’ said Lackey. “I tend to throw a lot of first-pitch strikes. I had to make some adjustments with that . . . Salty was great behind the plate.’’
The Peralta double was a mere speed bump. Lackey retired seven consecutive batters after the hit.
Things got interesting in the seventh after Mike Napoli staked Lackey to a rare lead with his solo homer. Farrell came out of the dugout to get Lackey with one on and two out.
“Are you [expletive] me,’’ Lackey snapped as Farrell walked to the bump.
Lackey was gone after only 97 pitches. Fortunately for Farrell, the move worked and the Sox won.
“That’s what makes John the competitor he is,’’ said Farrell. “I’d rather have him come off arguing than come off with his head down. We don’t want John to change as a person or as a competitor.’’
“I wasn’t quite ready to come out at that point,’’ said Lackey. “We won the game. That’s all that really matters.’’
He was asked if this was his finest moment with the Red Sox.
“Since being in Boston, yeah, for sure,’’ said the tall Texan. “Definitely the biggest game I’ve pitched here. A pretty big one, I guess.’’
It was not the biggest game of John Lackey’s career. Lackey made 12 postseason starts for Mike Scioscia in Anaheim. As a rookie in 2002, Lackey won the seventh game of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants.
Eleven years later, Lackey might be going back to the World Series.Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.