BOSTON — The 2013 Red Sox arrived in spring training with a chip on their shoulder, and no player — outside of maybe Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz — had more to prove than John Lackey.
Lackey has responded by putting together a terrific season. The 34-year-old has been focused, consistent and effective, and he has won back a fan base that was understandably disgruntled following a difficult stretch. In other words, Lackey embodies the 2013 Red Sox.
Given all that’s happened, it was fitting that Lackey punched Boston’s ticket to the postseason with a complete-game gem against the Orioles on Thursday.
“The remake of John Lackey both physically and getting back on the mound and performing as he’s done all year mirrors that of this team,” manager John Farrell said following Thursday’s 3-1 win. “It’s been a remake and it’s somewhat fitting that to clinch a spot to get into the playoffs is with him on the mound. And to go nine innings the way he did, like I said, very fitting.”
Lackey quickly fell out of favor in Boston after signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal prior to the 2010 season. He was inconsistent in 2010, awful in 2011 and missed all of 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Lackey failed to live up to his hefty price tag, and his overall demeanor only added to the negativity.
Something changed following his surgery, though. Lackey worked incredibly hard and reported to spring training in the best shape of his career, and the result has been a bounce-back season for the ages. Now, the fairy tale will continue into October, as the Red Sox are playoff-bound for the first time since 2009.
“It’s nice to be part of going to the playoffs,” Lackey said. “It was a lot of hard work getting back to this point, for sure. To be back here and to be pitching well again and being healthy, it’s been fun.”
Lackey carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning Thursday, and he recorded the first out in the seventh by getting Chris Davis to ground out to third base. At that point, the drama really started to build at Fenway Park, although Lackey said after the game that he didn’t give much thought to a potential no-hitter.
“We were just trying to win the game, man. Especially with a 3-0 game, you can’t get too far ahead of yourself,” Lackey said. “With their lineup, that can get out of hand pretty quick, so you’ve just got to try to make pitches. You can’t think about that.”
Adam Jones broke up Lackey’s bid for a no-no with a solo homer onto Lansdowne Street that cut Boston’s lead to 3-1. The Fenway Faithful recognized Lackey’s valiant effort with a standing ovation, but it wasn’t the last one that he’d receive.
Lackey rebounded from Jones’ seventh-inning homer to finish what he started. Lackey tossed a complete game while giving up just one run on two hits. He struck out eight, walked two, threw 113 pitches (82 strikes), and, most importantly, helped the Red Sox officially clinch a spot in the playoffs.
“Yeah, it had the makings of something special,” Farrell said of Lackey’s outing, “but in the end, it was still special given the significance of tonight’s win and the fact that he goes a complete game. The John Lackey story continues after what he’s been through.”
Red Sox fans showed their support Thursday with chants of, “Lackey! Lackey!” They then erupted when Jones — the same guy who broke up Lackey’s no-hit bid — flied out to right field to end the ballgame. Lackey and the Red Sox, meanwhile, took the win in stride, realizing that there’s still a lot of work to be done despite all of this year’s success.
“It’s fun to contribute, for sure,” Lackey said. “We’ve got such a great group of guys. It seems like we’ve got somebody doing it every night, somebody different. It’s a fun atmosphere in that clubhouse. We’ve still got some goals ahead of us and hopefully here in the next night or two, we can get a party going.”
Lackey hasn’t experienced playoff baseball since arriving in Boston. That will change this October, although the ending to this crazy story has yet to be written.