Lackey looking better than ever

BOSTON -- So there’s a big game to be won, and you have your pick of right-handers in the American League to win it.

Is that a conversation in which you ever thought you’d again hear John Lackey’s name, at this stage of his career, at this age (35) and with a Tommy John surgery on the north side of 30 on his medical chart?

Think about it: There are the usual suspects -- Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish. There’s the new flavor of the month, Masahiro Tanaka, who appears to be as good as advertised.

But after you get past those five, how many guys in this league would you take ahead of Lackey? The 2014 version of Clay Buchholz? Nope. “Big Game’’ James Shields? Jered Weaver? Anibal Sanchez?

That’s what we thought ... you’d take your chances with Lackey, wouldn’t you? You’d have to, based on his October track record, and based on what you’ve seen so far this season, especially his last two starts: the no-walk, 11-strikeout masterpiece against the Yankees last week in a game John Farrell called his best start in a Red Sox uniform, and an encore of eight innings in deplorable conditions Tuesday night in a 7-4 win against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“He was outstanding once again,” Farrell said. “He gave our offense the chance to get untracked and made some big pitches after the leadoff double by [James] Loney in the fifth, to leave him stranded. They answered back with the one run in the sixth to tie it, but because we were in a low-scoring game, we were able to get to their bullpen and put up five in the sixth, and he was able to give us eight strong innings again.”

Most of the elements that made Lackey an anchor for the Angels in the first phase of his career never have gone away -- the zeal to compete, the aggressiveness, the I-want-the-ball-as-long-as-you’ll-let-me-keep-it mentality. What has come back is the arm strength -- he touched 96 mph Tuesday night, averaged 92.6 mph with his two-seamer, 93.7 with his four-seamer -- and, because of his resculpted body, the impeccable control that has resulted in him walking one or none in four of six starts (one walk Tuesday night).

If Jon Lester was seeking a silent advocate in his quest to sign a long-term extension with the Red Sox, he could not have found a better one than Lackey, who is offering a compelling case that there’s still considerable value in keeping a proven winner around. The Sox are understandably excited about the kids in the pipeline, but Act III of Lackey’s career (Act I, Ace of the Angels; Act 2, Swoon with the Sox; Act III, the Vindication Years) doesn’t look like it’s ending any time soon.

He already has four wins this month, nearly halfway to his deceptive total of 10 last season, when he received the lowest run support of any starter on the staff.

Tuesday night, Lackey mastered the Rays even though the cold left him with little feel for his off-speed stuff, especially his slider. Of the 112 pitches he threw, 77 were four-seamers.

“Have you ever held a cue ball?” Lackey said. “The ball feels like a cue ball when it’s cold. You don’t really feel much seams, everything is slippery.”

But this has hardly been a new experience this spring. This was a night for scarves and parkas, but not the first one.

“I’m fortunate, I’ve had a lot of experience lately in the last month or so,” he said. “Tonight was probably the worst that it’s been, honestly, as far as feeling the baseball and being cold out there. [But I] got through it, the guys played great defense behind me, and [we] had a big inning.”

The expiration date on Lackey’s shelf life as a power pitcher seemingly passed in 2011, when his elbow betrayed him. But his comeback last season disproved that premise, and he looks as strong as ever in 2014. One of the best right-handers in the league? Without a doubt.