Commentary

A defining moment for Lackey

At last, Boston's hard-luck starter gives the performance of his Red Sox career

Updated: October 16, 2013, 8:56 AM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

DETROIT -- The pitcher retired 10 consecutive batters and punched out eight guys using a cutter that flummoxed a potent lineup of power hitters.

When he finally (and reluctantly) handed the ball over to his manager late in the seventh inning, he hadn't given up a run.

He was the most dominant player in Game 3 of the ALCS.

Justin Verlander? Guess again.

Try the other guy on the mound.

Red Sox pitcher John Lackey, the most scrutinized, dissected and derided arm on Boston's staff, became the hard-luck hurler who drew the short straw by being assigned the task of besting the otherworldly Verlander. Inherent in that challenge was the knowledge that his margin for error had to be minuscule.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesJohn Lackey (right) heads off the field in the fifth inning with a pat from first baseman Mike Napoli, who would later hit the game-winning home run.

As in practically zero.

"We haven't been great about getting Lack runs all season,'' noted catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, "and with Verlander out there you know one run might be the difference.''

Indeed, the final score was 1-0, only it was Lackey who recorded the win at Comerica Park, and by doing so carved out a chunk of Boston Strong goodwill for himself back home.

He's not the ace -- that's Jon Lester's moniker. He's not a young gun -- you really can't be when you are coming off Tommy John surgery and will turn 35 years old next week.

At least now he's not the pariah who signed with Boston for big money and became a big flop during a disastrous 2011 campaign in which he posted an ERA of 6.41, hit a career-high 19 batters and gave up a career-high 114 earned runs. It was later discovered he was pitching on a damaged elbow that required reconstructive surgery, but an agitated fan base, already disgusted by his connection to the entitled pitchers' chicken and beer narrative, was in no mood to cut Lack any slack.

If the 2013 Red Sox are truly on the road to redemption, then Lackey is their poster boy.

Lester had a better year and Clay Buchholz had more wins, but Lackey's 10-13 record was deceiving because of the paucity of run support he was given. He gave up just 74 earned runs during the season and posted a respectable 3.52 ERA.

It was a "nice" comeback year.

No matter. He will now be forever remembered in Boston for stepping onto the giant postseason stage and spinning a masterful gem that was interrupted by a 17-minute delay when the power briefly went out at the park.

Call it Lackey's Law. According to his catcher, if the weather is bad or some other unforeseen delay arises, it's usually when No. 41 is on the mound.

At the time of the brief power outage, the top half of the second inning had just been completed. Lackey was irritated about the stoppage in play, but, according to Saltalamacchia, it benefited him in hindsight.

"It was probably a good opportunity for him to slow things down,'' Saltalamacchia explained. "He was a little excited in that first inning and it seemed like he was overthrowing a little bit. He was leaving pitches over the plate when he normally doesn't do that.''

Lackey gave up singles to Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera in that first inning and ran a full count on the ever-dangerous Victor Martinez before coaxing him into a fly ball to center field. Verlander, meanwhile, did what he usually does -- he mowed the Sox down in order.

Boston's pitcher had already decided not to worry about what Verlander did or didn't do. He was locking in on his own performance.

"They were swinging on first-pitch fastballs quite a bit,'' Lackey said. "I tend to throw a lot of first-pitch strikes. And it's kind of been an approach that several teams (have used) against me.''

The down time while the lights were re-booted gave him and Saltalamacchia some time to discuss some first-pitch adjustments. When Lackey returned to the mound, he recorded 10 straight outs for Boston, and five of them were strikeouts.

All that was well and good, but, just as each Detroit starting pitcher has done in this series, Verlander was posting zeros of his own. He went the first 4 ⅔ innings without giving up a hit.

"Pretty early on,'' noted reliever Craig Breslow, "this game had the feel of being won or lost on one pitch.''

If you polled 100 baseball fans beforehand, 99 of them would have guessed it would be Lackey, not Verlander, who served up that one bad pitch.

Instead, the "one you want back" was thrown by Verlander, when he left a 96 mph fastball over the plate and Mike Napoli (who was 0-for-6 with 6 K's and a walk in the series to that point) hit a bomb out of the park in the seventh inning.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesLackey gets high-fives in the dugout after his dominant performance in Game 3. "It's fun for us to watch someone who cares so much about everyone in here do so well," said teammate Clay Buchholz.

Lackey had already thrown 88 pitches when he got Prince Fielder on a fly to left in the seventh, but only after Jonny Gomes made a hustling "face plant" grab. Martinez followed with a single up the middle, and although Lackey battled back from a 3-1 count to retire Jhonny Peralta on a fly ball, his manager had seen enough.

John Farrell pulled him after 97 pitches and summoned Breslow from the pen.

Lackey administered his death stare to the manager, then muttered "(Expletive) it" before finally letting go of the ball.

"Well," Farrell said, "you can anticipate him not wanting to come out of the game. That's what makes John the competitor he is. I'd rather have him come off arguing than come off with his head hanging.''

It didn't help Lackey's nerves when Breslow walked the first batter he faced (Alex Avila). Breslow escaped the inning without further damage, but there were still two long innings before Lackey could exhale.

"It's in a starter's nature never to ask out of a game,'' Breslow said. "Especially a bulldog like Lackey, who, if he had his way, would pitch until this game is over.''

Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara preserved the shutout and the 2-1 series lead. They gratefully handed the game ball to the starter.

Lackey is no stranger to postseason heroics or dominant performances from his days with the Los Angeles Angels.

He signed with Boston for big money, but, until now, hadn't really convinced the discerning Red Sox fan base he deserved it.

"He's taken a lot of grief, absolutely,'' said Buchholz. "The things people said about him (last year) ... and he wasn't even able to be out there last year battling to defend himself.

"He's a special person. The way he went about rehabbing and doing what he needed to do to trim down was awesome. He's worked really hard at it.

"His arsenal is back to what it was pre-injury. It's fun for us to watch someone who cares so much about everyone in here do so well.''

Asked to put his performance in perspective, Lackey admitted, "It's probably the biggest game I've pitched here (in Boston). And probably a pretty big one, I guess.''

He guessed right.

Lackey over Verlander.

At this time of year, that's as big as it gets.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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