BOSTON — It’s amazing what winning baseball games can do.
When John Lackey walked off the mound after striking out Nick Swisher to end the sixth inning on Friday, the right-hander was visibly fired up. By the time he walked off the mound after striking out Jason Giambi and Mark Reynolds to end the seventh inning, the fire spread to the Fenway Faithful who braved the soggy conditions to witness another excellent outing from the veteran.
Believe it or not, a few fans actually chanted Lackey’s name as he walked back to the dugout for the final time on Friday. It’s absolutely shocking given where Lackey’s career was headed two years ago, but it’s unsurprising given what the 34-year-old has accomplished so far this season. After all, winning solves everything.
Lackey allowed two hits, walked three and struck out eight in seven dazzling innings on Friday to pick up his third win of the season. The only run the Indians scored was unearned, and Lackey once again showed that he’s evolving into a very reliable pitcher for the Red Sox.
“The one thing he’s maintained is his stuff overall and considering the surgery’s he’s come off of, I think it’s a testament to the work he puts in in-between starts,” manager John Farrell said. “But as far as execution, it’s been a high number of first-pitch strikes. He’s been ahead in the count, not just the last two starts, but I think the majority of this year. And because of that, he’s been able to go to some secondary pitches to finish some hitters off.”
We’re only about two months into the season, but this is the best Lackey has looked since signing his lucrative five-year contract with the Red Sox prior to the 2010 season. His 2.72 ERA through his first seven starts is his best mark through his first seven starts of a season since 2008, when he was still a member of the Angels, and he’s gone back-to-back starts without surrendering an earned run for the first time since a three-start stretch with the Halos in 2006.
Even when Lackey has faltered this season, there have been plenty of encouraging signs, including his arm strength, which the right-hander admits is still increasing with each start. Lackey threw a season-high 109 pitches on Friday, and he thinks that topping the 100-pitch plateau a few more times will help get him to where he wants to be.
“It’s been a lot of fun, for sure,” Lackey said of his season. “It’s fun to get back in there with the guys and it’s a great group of guys to compete with and have success and be healthy. [I’m] not fighting a whole lot of other things, being able to execute pitches and feeling pretty good.”
Lackey is like a new man nowadays. The first sign of his seemingly newfound enthusiasm came during spring training, when he showed up healthy and in great shape. Now, that fervor continues to grow with each successful trip to the mound.
“I think John had some good intensity tonight throughout,” Farrell said. “He gets a big strikeout to end the sixth inning, you could see the emotion. And I think more than anything that says that he’s not thinking about anything that’s taken place in the past — either performance-wise or injury-wise — and he’s going out and competing at a high level right now.”
Perhaps the passion was there all along, though. One of the biggest knocks on Lackey in years past was his demeanor on the mound, but having seen Lackey evolve over the past few months, it’s clear his apparent hotheadedness was more directed toward himself for not pitching up to his high expectations.
“Nah, that’s been since I was about 12,” Lackey said. “As far as intensity, that’s something I’ll always have.”
OK, it’s settled, then. The intensity is staying. But the doubt that once surrounded the polarizing pitcher? That’s quickly being tossed out the window — as long as we’ll all let it go.
“Most of you guys won’t let me forget about it,” Lackey joked of his three-year shaky stretch. “But I mean I had one bad year and needed surgery afterwards. It’s not like I’ve never been good before.”
Good before. And good again.