The Big Pitcher, part 2: Lackey's late life

The following is the second of five in a series focusing on the Red Sox starting pitchers. 

Jan-Christian Sorensen
Contributing Writer

While starting pitching was a mixed mystery bag generally for the Red Sox coming into the season after an abysmal 2012 campaign, perhaps nobody was a bigger question mark specifically than John Lackey, who missed all of last year after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery.

Sox pessimists gleefully said “Told ya so” halfway into Lackey’s first start of the year against Toronto on April 6 when the right hander was forced to leave the game with pain in his throwing arm after going only 4.1 innings and taking the loss.

Luckily, the diagnosis turned out to only be minor inflammation in his right biceps and Lackey bounced back after a short stint on the disabled list and one rehab start to deliver a solid outing against Houston on April 28. Against the Astros the 34 year old tossed six innings of five-hit ball and struck out four to lower his ERA to 2.61 and record his first win in 614 days.

But then that question mark reared its ugly head again.

In his next three starts Lackey went 0-3 against Texas, Minnesota and Tampa Bay and saw his ERA balloon to 4.05. In Texas he surrendered three runs in five innings. Against Minnesota the Sox should have recorded an inning-ending double play in the sixth but Lackey threw the ball into center, allowing the Twins to tie the game up. Two batters later Lackey compounded the error when he gave up a two-run bomb to Oswaldo Arcia. Against Tampa, Lackey only made it 4.1 innings, giving up nine hits.

In his last two outings, however, Lackey has been more of an exclamation point for the starting staff. 

Take Friday night as a prime indicator of the righty’s resurgence. Lackey tossed seven stellar innings, handing out only two hits and walking three while striking out eight to help pace the Sox to an 8-1 win over the visiting Cleveland Indians and earn his third win of the season in the process. He’s now 3-4 with a 2.72 ERA.

In his previous start at Minnesota May 19, Lackey delivered in similar shut-‘em-down style, allowing only one hit and striking out five over six frames.

He’s once again looking like Lackey of olde — a guy who won two games (including the decisive Game Seven) for Mike Scioscia and the Angels in the 2002 World Series and went 19-9 with a 3.01 ERA in 2007, his best season to date.

The arm strength is back. He’s slimmed down considerably. His two-seam fastball is clocking at 90 mph and up. His pitches have life, he’s locating them consistently and he’s been more adept at maneuvering out of trouble when he makes the odd mistake. He’s composed, yet showing plenty of emotion on the mound, and therefore, the promise of better things yet to come.

“A healthy John Lackey and one who’s capable of a career that has been very good, he gives us a huge boost,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “Not in terms of just innings alone, the number of innings he can pitch, but the performance. When you look back to when he was healthy… I think we can all recognize the last couple years has been as much competing against his own body as it has been the opponent.

“I think more than anything he’s not thinking about anything that’s taken place in the past either performance wise or injury wise. He’s going out and competing at a high level right now.”

Lackey himself has been quick to slough off the criticism.

“I had one bad year and needed surgery afterwards. It’s not like I’ve never been good before.”

“I (feel) like arm strength and stuff is getting better,” said Lackey after Friday’s big win. “Endurance is getting better. Things are going on the right track. Honestly, I don’t think it’s all the way there yet. But definitely I think tonight was a nice step. It’s nice to be healthy and not fighting a whole lot of other things. I’ve been able to execute pitches and am feeling pretty good.”

Backbiters and deprecators still enamoured with sordid tales of clubhouse beer-swilling and fried-chicken smorgasbords, take note.

For the first time, Lackey — a combined 26-23 with a 5.26 ERA in his first two years before missing 2012 — is looking like the pitcher the Red Sox were counting on when they signed him to a five-year, $82.5-million contract in 2010.

Better late, as they say, than never.

To date, the Red Sox starting pitching corps is ranked first in the American League in innings pitched (299.2) and strikeouts (297) and second in the AL in wins (22) and average against (.235). The Sox starters are third in the AL in ERA (3.72) behind Chicago and Texas, and fourth in hits allowed (265). On the downside, Sox starters are leading the league in walks, issuing 122 free passes to date.

Twitter: jan_doh