John Lackey’s Smooth Spring Continues, Giving Rise to Increased Optimism About Right-Hander’s Future

John LackeyJohn Lackey’s spring training has been like a high jump competition. Each start he makes, the bar is raised incrementally. Fortunately for both Lackey and the Red Sox, the veteran has easily cleared each hurdle to date.

Lackey made another successful leap on Saturday, when he tossed five innings and threw 83 pitches (48 strikes) in a minor league spring training game against the Triple-A version of the Rays. He allowed one run on two hits, walked one and struck out five, but it was the workload that was most notable. The outing marked the first time that Lackey, who missed all of the 2012 season because of Tommy John surgery, went five innings in a game since Sept. 25, 2011.

A couple of weeks from now, the hope for the Red Sox is that five innings will represent a rather short day when it comes to their starters. Lackey’s five innings are on par with where the rest of the rotation is at innings-wise at this point in spring training, though, and it’s even more encouraging considering where the 34-year-old was just months ago.

Lackey, of course, stumbled through two disappointing seasons in Boston after signing his lucrative five-year deal, which already put him out of favor amongst much of the Red Sox’ fan base. Then, with the team’s 2011 collapse still fresh, general manager Ben Cherington announced that Lackey would undergo Tommy John surgery, ending the pitcher’s 2012 season before it ever began.

At that point in time, it was not only easy to write off Lackey, but it was also the logical thing to do. To his credit, he’s battled back, and it’s now to the point where there’s plenty of light at the end of the tunnel. Expectations are tempered “for sure” (to take a phrase from Lackey), but there seems to be a growing confidence that he could be a valuable contributor at the back end of the Boston rotation.

That’s another hurdle for another day, though. At this point, it’s about continuing to build up arm strength while improving his secondary pitches. Lackey’s command wasn’t great on Saturday — as evidenced by his 57.8 percent strike rate — but his overall stuff is still trending in the right direction.

“I tried to elevate the fastball a couple of times and was able to do that,” Lackey told reporters after his outing. “I was really happy that I had a couple guys on and I went for some strikeouts and was able to get those.

“Got some swing-and-misses on some breaking pitches and that was kind of a good sign. The [changeup] is a little bit harder, a little more action. It’s almost like a slower two-seam, a little more action that way.”

Still, the biggest hurdles Lackey has faced have been the mental ones. He’s cleared those with ease, and it almost feels as if the Red Sox have a new pitcher in the mix. He looks confident, sounds confident and apparently feels confident, and the club is thus optimistic about what he might bring to the table in 2013.

Pitching coach Juan Nieves was on hand for Lackey’s start on Saturday. He lauded the pitcher’s performance, pointing to the righty’s mental toughness, release point and delivery as signs of encouragement, even if it did come against minor league competition.

“I’ve seen many guys in the back field getting hammered,” Nieves said of Lackey’s outing. “He was able to keep his intensity up. He knows that he’s a professional. Every challenge he’s faced with he needs to take the bull by the horns. He’s done that.”

Lackey has made it clear that all of his “elbow stuff” is in the rearview mirror. He’ll need to pitch well enough early and often this season, however, to ensure that the struggles that tarnished his first two seasons in Boston are also a distant memory.

“I feel like as far as the rehab, we still got a few more times to go,” Lackey said. “But up to this point, it’s gone about as good as I could hope for.”

It’s also gone about as good as the Red Sox could have hoped. Now, it’s time to raise the bar another notch.

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