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BOSTON -- In retrospect, 3½ years after the winter news conference at Fenway Park to introduce John Lackey as the Red Sox's big free-agent prize, Theo Epstein got it half right.
As he has shown us now start in and start out since the beginning of the season, Lackey really is the kind of pitcher who can anchor a rotation, just as he did with the Angels and just as Epstein said he could here. The latest evidence came in Wednesday's 12-whiff, no-walk performance against the Colorado Rockies, one in which Lackey came out blazing, throwing a fastball that topped out at 95 and seldom strayed out of the strike zone.
Epstein was dead wrong, however, when asked about Lackey's health, which is why Lackey's emergence in the fourth year of his deal with the Sox is delayed gratification for something the Sox expected long before this, and paid dearly for ($82.5 million).
"Trust me, we've done a lot of due diligence," Epstein had said when asked if there were health concerns, downplaying the elbow and triceps issues Lackey had had in each of the previous two seasons.
|John Lackey attacked the strike zone with 95 mph heat Wednesday, striking out 12 Rockies.|
"He's been, outside of those two episodes, extraordinarily durable throughout his entire career and is someone who obviously finished strong last year," Epstein continued. "The last image of John Lackey is him demanding the ball on the field of Yankee Stadium. So he's somebody that we strongly believe is healthy. Trust me, we put him through quite a physical over the last 48 hours, and he's someone we trust to take the ball every fifth day."
As Lackey tells it, he was never really right physically since he got here, even though John Farrell doesn't recall the elbow becoming a problem until after Farrell left to manage the Blue Jays following the 2010 season.
Now, with a surgically repaired elbow and the resculpted body of a man a decade younger, Lackey has come to the rescue of a Sox rotation that has had Clay Buchholz for only two starts in over a month, may not get him back before the All-Star break, and is still waiting on Jon Lester to snap out of an extended funk.
Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront and even Alfredo Aceves have all had their moments, but it is Lackey who has been the stabilizer, reeling off a 4-1 record and 2.44 ERA over his past eight starts. In 13 starts this season, he has allowed more than three earned runs just twice. He has struck out eight batters or more four times this season, which in late June already tops his previous years in a Sox uniform.
And most improbably for a pitcher who had become a pariah in his adopted city, he has been virtually unhittable in Fenway Park. His earned run average at home is 1.36, actually rising from the 1.03 ERA that led the American League in home ERA coming into Wednesday's start.
"The Tommy John surgery, the rehab, the reshaping of the body -- it's almost like we're looking at a different guy in a couple of ways," said Farrell, who once recruited Lackey when he was coaching at Oklahoma State. "His stuff doesn't tail off as it might have early on when he signed here. He's always been a tenacious competitor, we continue to see that every time he walks to the mound.
"But much of the credit [goes to what] John has put himself through, and that includes the surgery and all the work that he's put in following that."
Lackey's approach Wednesday was nothing more than an open challenge to Rockies hitters -- I'm coming after you with my fastball, and I defy you to hit it. Of the 98 pitches he threw Wednesday, two-thirds were fastballs. The velocity had dipped a couple miles an hour by the sixth inning, but that was understandable on a hot and humid afternoon.
What was constant were the swings and misses, and the strikes he was registering. Nine of the Rockies' strikeouts came on swings and misses, and they swung and missed 15 times in all, 11 times on his fastball. He threw 76 percent of his fastballs for strikes, with an equally impressive 72 percent of his off-speed pitches also going for strikes.
Seventy-two percent of the Rockies' plate appearances were over in four or fewer pitches, a further example of his dominance. Other than a fastball he ran back over the plate to Michael Cuddyer, who smoked it off the Advil sign in left-center, Lackey made few obvious mistakes.
"Probably the strongest he's been all year," Farrell said. "Outstanding fastball command, good power to it, a lot of strikes. And to me probably two at-bats probably stick out the most, the 3-and-2 counts to [Tyler] Colvin and [Carlos] Gonzalez. He was able to step off, regroup, make a couple of key breaking ball pitches in those counts and to add to his strikeout total. He was outstanding today."
Lackey has never lacked for support within his own clubhouse. His peers and managers to a man have sung his praises as a great teammate, which was the same refrain that was heard during his years in Anaheim. His reputation as a competitor was more easily discerned from the outside, but because it so rarely translated into success, his demonstrativeness on the mound was too easily mocked as a pitcher showing up his teammates.
Now, however, with Lackey defying the projections that say it usually takes a full season for a pitcher to feel fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, a once-skeptical public is beginning to appreciate the entire package. The man who as an Angels rookie won a World Series Game 7 in 2002 has recast himself as an indispensable part of Sox plans to return to October after a three-year absence.
And that means more to him than the pretty numbers he posted Wednesday, when he became one of just six Sox pitchers ever to have 12 or more K's in a game without walking a batter. Pedro Martinez did it 10 times; Roger Clemens six times; Hideo Nomo, Bruce Hurst and Jim Lonborg once apiece.
"All those little numbers, I'm kind of past that in my career," he said. "I just want to win, man. I'm here to try to win a ring. All the little numbers that they like to talk about nowadays, I'm not really all into that."