Gimme-the-ball Lackey is back

BOSTON -- What may have cinched John Lackey's top 5 ranking on his all-time favorite list, Brendan Donnelly said Tuesday night, was "the nice, little brawl" Donnelly started when he and Lackey were teammates with Triple-A Salt Lake City, just a few months before they both found themselves in the World Series.

"Lackey was the second one to get to my side, right after the catcher," Donnelly said. "You notice things like that."

About that "little brawl": Five years later, Lackey was still writing about it, on a blog he had while still with the Angels. (We'll let that sink in for just a second, the idea that Lackey kept a blog, before proceeding with our story.)

Lackey called it the best brawl he'd ever seen.

"Brendan Donnelly hit a guy, he was probably 6-5, 230, a big old dude," Lackey wrote. "And Brendan is a big boy, too. It was a train wreck at the mound. It was a real brawl, not one of those shoving matches you see. This one lasted 20 to 30 minutes.

"I kind of knew it was going to happen. The guy had hit a couple of home runs off of us and was doing a little bat tossing, jogging around the bases, that kind of stuff, so we knew it was coming. I was in the middle of the first pile. There were three different brawls going on at the same time. I got my pants ripped up and had a few bumps on the back of my head from being in the pile. The worst thing for me was that it was in Triple-A and I always had a hard time finding pants that fit me there. I ripped my gamers from the knee down; someone must have been kicking me so they got cut up pretty good."

Of such encounters are bonding moments formed and lasting friendships made. This was 2002. Donnelly was 31 years old, had been released by seven big league teams, had pitched in more than a dozen minor league cities, had cast his lot with two independent teams (including the Nashua Pride), had surfaced in winter ball in three countries (the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela) and had never gotten a sniff in the majors. Lackey was 23 years old, a second-round draft choice making steady progress up the Angels' minor league ladder.

They had been together a year earlier, in Arkansas.

"I was an old guy in Double-A," Donnelly said. "He was just coming up with the Angels. He was a guy I knew was good. I knew he got it. He was young and sometimes out of control. I was old and out of control, in a similar way."

When they made it to the next rung, Lackey was always saying he was ready for the big leagues. Donnelly kept telling him he wasn't.

"The jackass," Donnelly said. "I got to the big leagues first, but the day he was called up, I got sent down. There had been a rainout, so we had a doubleheader in Texas, and they sent me down between games because they called up Lackey.

"He pitched good, but he lost. Afterward, I came down with my wife to the hotel bar, where I wasn't supposed to be [having been sent down], to congratulate Lackey. Troy Percival [the unofficial leader of the Angels' pitching staff] fined me $700 for being there, even though I was only there for a minute, and with my wife."

Donnelly, who passed through Boston in 2007 and revealed he was pitching without a ligament in his elbow, finally ran out of teams to play for after the 2010 season.

"No one would offer me a job," he said. "I didn't stop. They stopped me."

He now has a landscaping and pool design business in Gilbert, Ariz., where he'll be putting ribs on the grill Wednesday night, when Lackey is due to pitch Game 2 of the World Series for the Red Sox. He did that the last time Lackey pitched, when he outdueled Justin Verlander in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. It's already worked once, he said.

"I still text Lack all the time," Donnelly said. "I texted him about five minutes before one playoff game, and he texted me back. I texted him again and said, 'Don't you have someplace you're supposed to be?'"

Donnelly shared what until now has been the greatest moment of Lackey's career -- Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, when rookie Lackey, pitching on three days' rest, held Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants to a single run in five innings. Donnelly, also a rookie, came out of the pen to pitch the next two innings, and rookie Francisco Rodriguez pitched the eighth before the Angels gave the ball to their closer Percival, who recorded the final outs of the first Series title in Angels history.

Bud Black was the Angels' pitching coach at the time. There was never any doubt, he said Tuesday, that Lackey would be on the hill for Game 7.

"Mike Scioscia came into the coaches' room after Game 4 or 5 and said if this Series goes seven, what do you guys got?" Black said. "To a man, we all said John. We all felt good about John.

"When we told him, I don't think it surprised him. He wanted the ball. He was very self-assured. It wasn't false bravado. It was real."

Seven years later, in 2009, Lackey shut down the Red Sox in Game 1 of the AL Division Series in Anaheim, allowing four hits in 7 1/3 scoreless innings in a victory that led to an Angels sweep. That was the pitcher the Red Sox thought they were getting when Theo Epstein signed him to a five-year, $82.5 million deal after the season. Four years and one reconstructive elbow surgery later, the Red Sox are finally seeing the pitcher they had once envisioned anchoring their pitching staff.

After missing the 2012 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, a year after posting the worst-ever ERA (6.41) of any Sox pitcher throwing at least 150 innings in a season, Lackey has become the team's most dependable right-handed pitcher.

Black, now the manager of the San Diego Padres, ran into him the first week of the season in New York.

"We were in town to play the Mets," he said. "He was there to play the Yankees. The first thing I noticed was how lean he looked, how he even looked taller, and the look in his eye was much different than I'd seen on television the last couple years.

"He'd been pitching with a bad elbow his first couple of years in Boston, and he was trying to fight through it like the bulldog he is. That opening series, I saw a determined look on his face. He pitched really well. The arm action looked like it did as a young pitcher. The body was firing the right way. Obviously the velocity came back. It all adds up: the Tommy John, the training, the weight loss. He wasn't just working on forearm and elbow exercises."

Donnelly said Lackey called him when he was first thinking of signing with the Red Sox.

"He said, 'What do you think?' I told him when we were in Anaheim, we called it the big leagues, but Boston is what I call the 'super' league," Donnelly said. "When I left Anaheim, it was turning into a job. Boston, I was like a kid again. Fenway is so intense; it's awesome. I tell guys if you can play even one year in Boston, you've got to do it."

That's not how it played out for Lackey. He had middling success his first year, winning 14 games but with a 4.40 ERA, and then it all went south in 2011. A disastrous season on the mound, a public divorce from a woman who had cancer at the time and the beer-and-chicken hoo-ha in which he was cast in a starring role. For a town looking for a scapegoat, Lackey was an ideal candidate.

"I don't think he ever hated Boston," Donnelly said. "He went through a lot of B.S. He may have shut down for a while, understandably so. A lot of stuff happened, man. His elbow was hurting for a long time before he ever said anything. He's not soft. He's going to give everything.

"He may have hated life, but not the ballpark. That's where you belong, where your teammates are, where people have your back."

Donnelly said he was one of the first to call when Lackey learned he needed elbow surgery. He counseled patience. Lackey, he said, understood what was required to come back -- and took it to another level. Donnelly laughs when he describes how he turned on the TV early this season to watch Lackey pitch.

"I said, 'Where's the rest of him?'" Donnelly said. "He's in the best shape of his life. He was tall and thin in the minors, then he got tall and chunky. That was not just a rehab."

Donnelly said he suspects he knows what motivated Lackey, who turned 35 Tuesday night.

"He's an 'honor' guy," Donnelly said. "He got a nice contract from Boston. He feels obligated to honor that contract. He's loyal that way. Some guys get a contract, they disappear."

The Lackey that Boston is seeing now in October, Donnelly said, the one who still looks in disbelief and barely controlled rage when Sox manager John Farrell comes to take him out of the game, is the Lackey he has known all his life.

"That's why I love him," Donnelly says. "That's why he's still doing what he's doing. He wants the ball on the biggest stage all the time. He's got confidence. He's big. He's strong. He's got that 'it'.

"Lackey's like, 'Give me the ball in any situation, and I'll go out there for as long as I can and give you what I can until you take the ball away from me.'

"What more could you want?"