While rehabbing from Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2012 season, the Boston Red Sox pitcher became nearly a full-time resident of Fort Myers, Fla., where he spent the majority of his time strengthening his right arm in order to return to the Sox’s starting rotation in 2013.
During that hiatus, he realized he wanted to accomplish one thing in a Red Sox uniform. His goal was to be standing on the mound at Fenway Park in Game 7 of the World Series and lead the Red Sox to a championship.
It won't be Game 7, but the veteran right-hander will have the chance to clinch the Series with a win against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 Wednesday night at Fenway.
John Lackey, with Clay Buchholz at Tuesday's workout, is 3-1 with a 3.14 ERA this postseason.
Lackey’s career in Boston hasn’t been a smooth one. In his first two seasons with the Red Sox, he was criticized for his behavior on and off the field. He became one of the poster boys for the infamous chicken-and-beer season of 2011, when he pitched much of the season with discomfort in the elbow that would require surgery and posted a 12-12 record and a 6.41 ERA. He despised the fact he was on the receiving end of boos and criticism he didn’t think were fair.
So, when he stands on the mound Wednesday night and the fans are cheering for him, his motivation will be to win in spite of those who doubted his ability or dedication. When asked to discuss his motivation, Lackey answered, “I’ve got more important things to worry about than that.”
Lackey is 3-1 with a 3.14 ERA this postseason and even threw the ball well in the game in which he suffered the loss. In Game 2 of the World Series, the right-hander worked 6 1/3 innings and allowed three runs on five hits with two walks and six strikeouts, but suffered a 4-2 loss to the Cardinals and starter Michael Wacha, who worked six innings and allowed two runs on three hits.
The two starters will be back on the mound for Game 6. Wacha will attempt to help the Cardinals stave off elimination, while Lackey is pitching for redemption.
He has been on this stage in the past and has won. As a 22-year-old rookie in 2002, he helped the Anaheim Angels defeat the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, as he was the winning pitcher in Game 7. Some might think he’ll use that experience on Wednesday, but Lackey is well beyond being that raw pitcher from Texas.
“That was a long time ago, man,” he said Tuesday. “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.”
As the Red Sox prepared for their off-day workout Tuesday at Fenway Park, a teammate approached Lackey and asked him what he thought of his beard. That teammate was quickly put in his place because Lackey’s “got more important things to worry about than that.”
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On the eve of Game 6, perhaps the biggest game of his career, Lackey is focused.
“You’ve got to treat all of them like that at this point in the year,” Lackey said. “They’re all big games. It’s tough to put one above any other when it comes to the World Series. They’re all really important.”
When current Red Sox manager John Farrell was the pitching coach in Boston in 2010, he knew what Lackey was pitching through his first season here. His elbow was a mess and the organization knew at some point he would need surgery.
After the 2010 season, Farrell was hired to manage the Toronto Blue Jays and watched Lackey from afar. When Farrell returned to Boston as manager last fall, he knew a key for the Sox’s rotation would be with a healthy and productive John Lackey.
The two met during the winter and Farrell was impressed with Lackey’s motivation heading into the season.
“The protocol for the rehab of Tommy John is pretty straight forward, and that doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee to get back to the previous level of performance,” Farrell said. “But where John deserves all the credit is the way he reshaped his body, what he put himself through physically last offseason, and seeing him and meeting with him early last December, it was clear that the reshaping of what he went through, coming away from that meeting I felt like he had as much opportunity to impact this team as anyone.
“As it’s played out, he’s shown a different side of him this year. It had to start with his performance on the mound, which has been very consistent. 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.”
Make no mistake about Lackey’s motivation for Game 6. He wants to win for his teammates. He wants to win for the manager and his coaching staff. He wants to win for himself. Those factors most likely are more important to him than what any outsiders think.
Either way, he’s on baseball’s biggest stage with a chance to clinch the World Series for the Red Sox and their fans.