The lights went out in the second inning at Comerica Park on Tuesday. John Lackey made sure that they never came back on for the Tigers’ offense.
Lackey was lights out for 6 2/3 innings while guiding the Red Sox to a 1-0 win in Game 3 of the ALCS in Detroit. The right-hander stymied the Tigers’ offense, outdueled Justin Verlander and reinforced his status as a big-game pitcher by giving Boston a 2-1 series edge in his most important start as a member of the Red Sox.
“I think if you poll any pitcher, a starting pitcher, they want that moment,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “They want the importance of every pitch to be on it, particularly this late in the season. They want that responsibility. John is no different. There was no margin for error. And you know what, he did a heck of a job.”
Lackey surrendered two hits in the first inning of Tuesday’s Game 3. Torii Hunter singled with one out, and Prince Fielder sent his teammate from first to third with a two-out knock into right-center field. But Lackey avoided any trouble by retiring Victor Martinez on a flyout to center, and only got stronger after a power outage stopped play for 17 minutes between the top and bottom of the second inning.
“I think maybe just that little time off gave him a chance to kind of settle down a little bit,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said of the brief delay. “He was excited and pumped that first inning. Kind of getting excited with his slider, throwing it maybe a little too hard and leaving it over the middle, but he was still pretty effective and maybe that just gave him a chance to settle down.”
Lackey retired nine straight after the outage — 10 straight overall. Five of those outs were strikeouts, and only one ball left the infield. It was an important stretch for the Red Sox because Boston’s offense failed to produce a hit off Verlander until the fifth inning.
“Retro Verlander,” said outfielder Jonny Gomes. “He was running it out there 97 [mph]. He’s got a 12-6 curveball for a strike, he’s got a changeup for a strike, he’s got a slider. Best pitch in the game, the elevated heater, velocity back. It’s a battle any time you’ve got to go after that guy.”
The Tigers’ offense finally threatened in the fifth inning, as Jhonny Peralta gave Detroit its first hit since the first inning with a leadoff double. Peralta advanced to third base when Alex Avila grounded to the right side, but the Tigers were unable to scratch across a run because Lackey buckled down with one out. Lackey struck out Omar Infante, and then retired Andy Dirks on a slow roller to second base.
“He just never gave in,” Saltalamacchia said. “He got into some situations, first and third, and he never gave in. He never really had to leave anything over the plate, no matter what the situation, man on third with one out. Just some big at-bats that we were able to keep in our favor.”
Lackey finished the regular season at 10-13, but was way better than the record indicated. The problem was that the Red Sox failed to generate much offense in Lackey’s starts, and he often found himself playing the role of hard-luck loser. On Tuesday, a similar plot played out until Mike Napoli went deep off Verlander with one out in the seventh inning. That was all Lackey and Co. needed.
“Lackey finally figured out that we’re only going to give him one run,” Dustin Pedroia joked after the game. “The whole year, our pitching was unbelievable. Nap’s swing, it was a great win for us.”
Farrell turned to the bullpen with two outs in the seventh inning, much to Lackey’s chagrin. Lackey gave up just four hits, didn’t walk anyone and struck out eight while throwing 97 pitches in his 6 2/3 shutout innings, and it was clear that the veteran wanted an opportunity to finish out the seventh.
“Well, you can anticipate him not wanting to come out of the game. And you know what, that’s what makes John such the competitor that he is,” Farrell said. “I’d rather him come off arguing than come off with his head hanging. That means we’re probably on the reverse side of the scoreboard.
“You never want a pitcher to come out of the game. If something is made of that, we don’t want John to change who he is as a person, and certainly who he is as a competitor.”
Craig Breslow finished off the seventh inning after issuing a two-out walk, and the Tigers put runners at the corners in the eighth inning with one out. Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara struck out Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, respectively, to end the eighth, and the Red Sox were on their way to squeaking out the 1-0 win.
“Obviously some great hitters up there in a tight situation. And Taz came through with a big strikeout and Koji has been doing it all year,” Lackey said. “We like having him on the mound, that’s for sure.”
It’s been a special season for Lackey, who missed all of 2012 following Tommy John surgery. He has been healthy, consistent and, now, an important factor on the big stage in October. In other words, after three dismal years to begin his Boston tenure, Lackey is finally the pitcher who the Red Sox thought they were signing to a five-year, $82.5 million deal prior to the 2010 season.
“A guy with playoff experience, that’s pitched on the biggest stage that the game has to offer. Today was one of those, as well,” Farrell said. “This is a veteran with a lot of success in the past, including postseason success. And given the challenges he’s come through in the time he’s been in Boston, we’re glad he’s not only come back from Tommy John, but regained the form he had pre‑injury.”
Lackey has been on the mound for some big moments in his career. He won Game 7 of the World Series for the Angels back in 2002, and delivered a number of important postseason performances for the Halos prior to departing after the 2009 season. Now that the Red Sox are in the playoffs for the first time since Lackey joined the mix, we’re seeing that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Red Sox waited four years for Lackey to take the ball in a game of this magnitude. He didn’t disappoint.