John Lackey pitched some of the better games of his career at Fenway Park this season, propping up the rotation for much of June and July when Clay Buchholz went on the disabled list and Jon Lester was ineffective.
He also stood tall in the pennant race, pitching well in big games against the Orioles and Yankees.
“There’s no way we do what we do without Lack,” Buchholz said last week. “He picked us up so many times.”
But not once did Lackey tip his cap when he left the mound at Fenway. As the crowd cheered, the righthander would stare straight ahead as he walked to the dugout, hat firmly on.
For Lackey, no cloying ovation could sweep clear the memories of his first three seasons with the Red Sox.
His five-year, $82.5 million contract was immediately derided as excessive in 2010 despite all he had accomplished with the Angels.
Lackey then was pinned with too big a share of the blame for the team’s collapse in September 2011. His testy postgame press conferences became fodder for talk shows.
When Lackey missed the 2012 season recovering from elbow surgery, it was almost a relief. He often traveled with the team but kept a low profile.
“I know what was said, you don’t forget stuff like that,” Lackey said earlier this month. “This season has been great but there were some . . . there’s no point in talking about it now.”
On Wednesday night, in Game 6 of the World Series, perhaps Lackey finally can make his peace with Boston. If a championship can’t mend old wounds, nothing will.
The Red Sox lead the Cardinals, three games to two, and can win the World Series at Fenway Park for the first time since 1918. The last Red Sox pitcher to win the clinching game of a World Series at home was Carl Mays.
It would be the eighth championship in franchise history, the third since 2004. The Red Sox would be the first team since the 1991 Minnesota Twins to go from last place in their division to World Series champions in a year.
“It would be awesome,” Lackey said Tuesday before the Red Sox worked out at Fenway. “As far as personally, I’m just thinking about executing pitches and trying to win a game and hopefully we get to that point.”
Lackey started Game 2 of the Series, allowing three runs on five hits over 6⅓ innings. Two of the runs scored after he left the game in the seventh inning in a game the Sox lost, 4-2.
Lackey pitched a scoreless inning of relief in Game 4 Sunday, throwing 17 pitches in a 4-2 victory. That appearance came on the day he normally would throw in the bullpen as preparation for his start.
“The intensity obviously is a little bit different getting in the game than throwing out of the bullpen,” Lackey said. “But the number of pitches I threw shouldn’t be much of a factor.”
Starting a potential World Series clincher is not new ground for Lackey. He started Game 7 of the 2002 World Series for the Angels against the Giants and was the winner.
Lackey allowed one run on four hits over five innings before Angels manager Mike Scioscia turned it over to the bullpen. Lackey was a 24-year-old rookie then.
“I was a rookie. We had a pretty veteran team,” Lackey said. “Our bullpen was probably our main strength on that team. I was trying to get five or six innings and turn it over to those guys. My job was just basically not to screw it up.
“That was a long time ago, man. I don’t think that’s going to play much into tomorrow. I think most of those guys in that game aren’t even playing anymore.”
Andy Pettitte went 11 years between clinching games of the Series, winning for the Yankees in 1998 and 2009. For Lackey, now 35, this is his chance at history. But that won’t be on his mind when he takes the mound.
“You’ve got to treat all of them like that at this point in the year. They’re all big games,” he said. “It’s tough to put one above any other when it comes to World Series. They’re all really important.”
Lackey gave the Red Sox 29 starts and 189⅓ innings coming off surgery, more than expected. As was his 3.52 ERA. Lackey’s 10-13 record was not indicative of how well he pitched.
Along the way he allowed the public to see the sides of his personality that teammates rave about.
“It had to start with his performance on the mound, which has been very consistent,” manager John Farrell said. “But the way in which he’s interacted with people around here, maybe just the perception has changed with John, and rightfully so, it all goes back to John.”
The last World Series Game 6 at Fenway Park was in 1975 against the Cincinnati Reds. It ended on Carlton Fisk’s home run leading off the bottom of the 12th inning. Fisk waving the ball fair is an everlasting memory.
But the Red Sox lost the next night and the Reds celebrated at Fenway. Fisk’s home run only served to delay disappointment that lingered for another generation.
The Red Sox now have two chances to win one game and host the best party at Fenway in nearly 100 years.
“We’re definitely confident,” Lackey said. “The place, the atmosphere is going to be great. The fans are going to be crazy. But you’ve still got to focus on the task at hand and executing and just still playing baseball. We’re still one win away.”