Commentary

John Lackey has his guns blazing

Updated: April 8, 2014, 8:50 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Granted, it's still a sight more common on the streets of Laredo than the boulevards of Boston, but if anyone can pull off wearing a Stetson here, it's John Lackey.

The other night after the Red Sox charity function following the team's home opener, Lackey was on Yawkey Way with friends, sporting a long coat and the cowboy hat that Jonny Gomes had given him and the other Sox players -- the one with the words "World Champs" stitched inside. Lackey looked like he fit right at home on the movie poster of "Tombstone" with the rest of the Earp brothers.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesJohn Lackey was frustrated after giving up a run in the fourth, but that was about the only thing that didn't go his way.

And when the native of Abilene, Texas, takes the mound, as he did Monday night in a 5-1 win over the Texas Rangers in which he allowed just an unearned run in seven innings, the message at Fenway Park is much the same as it was at the O.K. Corral, with just a slight twist:

Hardball Justice is here.

Lackey, whose fastball has as much if not more movement than that of any pitcher in the Red Sox rotation, made it two wins in two starts in 2014, shutting down the Rangers in much the same fashion as he throttled the Baltimore Orioles last Wednesday in Camden Yards.

He located his fastball with precision (17 of 27 first-pitch strikes), commanded his breaking stuff almost as well (he threw 69 percent of his fastballs for strikes, 67 percent of his off-speed pitches, mostly sliders and three curves, for strikes), challenged Rangers hitters to try to beat him early in the count, and showed no quarter to left-handed hitters (1-for-10 against him).

"He might have thrown some fastballs today, but they certainly weren't straight," said Texas manager Ron Washington, who has seen lots of Lackey from his days in the AL West, both with Oakland and Texas. "Some cut on them.

"He's a good pitcher. He reads hitters well. We had him in some situations where we could have broken through, but we just didn't get the base hit."

As well as Lackey pitched last season -- a 3.52 ERA, 161 strikeouts and just 40 walks in 29 starts and 189 ⅓ innings -- he won just 10 games, matching the fewest wins he'd had in a season since 2003. Lackey fell in the wheelhouse of the stats guys who argue that win-loss record is the worst way to judge a pitcher. Too many factors out of a pitcher's control are involved in the outcome, particularly run support -- a team-low 4.18 runs per nine innings in 2013 for Lackey, who was on the losing end of six opposition shutouts.

But Lackey was rewarded with three wins in the postseason, including the World Series clincher against the Cardinals, and at age 35 and another year removed from Tommy John surgery, he bears a much greater resemblance to the ace who carried the Angels for years than the guy who looked to be at the end of his rope when he first came to Boston.

"All to the credit of John Lackey, who reshaped himself, reshaped his approach to the game," said manager John Farrell, reciting what has become the well-worn narrative of Lackey's late-career renaissance. "He set out to change the perception formed the last couple of years. He had to do it first with his performance, on the field. Coming back from Tommy John [surgery], putting himself in great physical condition, he's at the root of the turnaround.

"He was very good in his last start in spring training, and the first two [this season] have been powerful, have been clean. He did a great job of locating his fastball. To see how he's come off Tommy John and carried his stamina is testament to his work ethic."

More than one scout said this spring that Lackey looked like the guy who made at least 32 starts in five consecutive seasons for the Angels, with whom he earned lasting fame as the rookie who won Game 7 in the 2002 World Series.

Lackey doesn't quite buy that. He said he threw a lot more curveballs then, and didn't even have a slider. But there is no question the renewed life of his fastball -- he touched 95 mph in the second inning Monday -- is reminiscent of John Lackey 1.0.

"I throw hard," he said. "I don't throw fast necessarily. Those are two different things. I try to be aggressive. I try to make guys make decisions early in the count."

And on those occasions when he fell behind in the count on Monday, he was relentless: 13 of the 14 pitches he made when he was behind were strikes. And in the biggest jam he faced, with the go-ahead runs on second and third with two out in the seventh, Lackey came up big, retiring J.P. Arencibia on a ground ball to second.

"I got in a jam there ... but I got it done," Lackey said.

Hardball justice.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.


EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES