ST. LOUIS — John Lackey’s tenure with the Red Sox has been anything but popular or even, really, successful.
Expected to stabilize the rotation when he signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract in December 2009, Lackey had been anything but a salve for the pitching staff. He complained about run support, appeared irritated at the slightest mistake by a teammate, and wore that glum expression constantly, never endearing himself to this baseball-crazy fan base because of his prickly attitude.
But he just may have changed all that, nearly four years into his contract. Lackey told manager John Farrell that, despite being scheduled to pitch Game 6 of the World Series at Fenway Park Wednesday night, he was available to log some relief, if needed, in Game 4 Sunday.
And for the first time in nine years, the big Texan took the mound out of the bullpen, recording a scoreless eighth inning in Boston’s 4-2 win that evened the series at two games apiece. The inning was not without suspense, as Lackey allowed a runner to reach third with one out, but he was able to escape the jam unscathed.
Lackey seems to have the respect of his teammates. He has responded from the Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for all of 2012 to give his best effort for the 2013 Red Sox, which hasn’t been spectacular but has been serviceable. And Sunday’s outing could be considered a turning point for his perception in Boston.
While it’s highly unlikely the Red Sox will re-sign Lackey when his contract expires, his image has changed dramatically. He is likable now. He smiles during interviews. He still can be sarcastic and has his share of zingers for reporters, but this performance showed that Lackey was willing to leave his comfort zone for the sake of the team.
Instead of chiding Xander Bogaerts for his error that allowed Yadier Molina to reach second base with one out in the eighth, Lackey pitched out of the jam, which became tenuous when Molina reached third on Lackey’s wild pitch.
But Lackey proceeded to induce a popout from Jon Jay and a ground ball from David Freese, setting up the save situation for Koji Uehara.
Afterward, he tried to make it out as just another day at the office, but he knew it wasn’t.
“Yeah, I’m pretty much a starter,” he said with humility. “But when you pitch 200 innings most years, you have to [escape jams] several times. So it’s not that big a deal.”
Lackey stepped into the baseball forefront in 2002 when, as a rookie, he helped the Anaheim Angels to a World Series title by pitching in three of the seven games against the San Francisco Giants. That included a relief appearance in Game 2 when he took over for a struggling Kevin Appier. He also started Game 4, getting a no-decision, and won Game 7 with five strong innings.
Lackey turned 24 during that World Series. This time is different.
“It’s been 11 years and I think I’m appreciating this one and soaking up this one a little bit more,” he said. “I was just a rookie then, just trying to help out a bunch of veterans. Now, I’m a veteran guy who really appreciates how tough it is to be here.”
After watching close buddy Clay Buchholz pitch on guile for four innings, Lackey fully understood that he had to get outs, despite the circumstances not being optimal. The Red Sox pitching staff is a little battered, with Jake Peavy unable to last five innings in Game 3 and Felix Doubront being stretched out for two games, so Lackey was desperately needed.
And what is interesting is that he approached Farrell, not the other way around. Lackey wasn’t forced into this. He seized the opportunity, which exemplifies how much he has changed over the past few years.
After being seen as selfish and aloof on that “chicken and beer” 2011 team and then completely missing the 2012 season with ligament replacement surgery, Lackey’s reputation in Boston was rather soiled. That is changing.
“This time of year, very few people are 100 percent,” he said. “Everybody is playing with something. You’ve got to chip in and try to get wins, and it doesn’t matter what they look like. You get to four, and that’s all that matters.
“I’m just excited to help out. Whenever you can get in there, get in the fight with the boys, it’s always fun.”
When asked the difference between his relief appearance Sunday and that Game 2 outing in 2002, Lackey said with a smile, “I threw a lot harder back then.”
A 6.41 ERA in 2011, major arm surgery, and disregard from the Red Sox faithful appear to have humbled Lackey. He may not have lived up to his contract, but Sunday’s outing was a Texas-sized step forward for his image and worthiness.Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.