BOSTON — The tip of the cap said it all.
For three years, John Lackey and Red Sox Nation struggled to get along. The veteran underperformed in the first two years of his lucrative five-year deal, and then missed all of 2012 following Tommy John surgery, at which point many wondered if Lackey had thrown his last pitch in Boston.
But 2013 marked a new beginning. And after seven months of battling for both himself and his teammates, Lackey acknowledged the Fenway Faithful as he walked off the mound in the seventh inning of Game 6 of the World Series on Wednesday.
“It’s been tough,” Lackey said Wednesday of his rollercoaster tenure in Boston. “There have been some times that weren’t a whole lot of fun, but it was pretty nice tonight.’’
Lackey went 6 2/3 innings in the Red Sox’ series-clinching victory. He gave up one run on nine hits while striking out five. It was a gutsy performance by a pitcher who finally got an opportunity to build on his big-game reputation this season, and it was an effort that was just so 2013 Lackey — right down to his refusal to give up the baseball.
John Farrell went out to visit Lackey on the mound with two outs in the seventh. The Cardinals had already pushed across a run and were threatening for more, so it seemed like Farrell would make the move to Junichi Tazawa with Matt Holliday coming up. Instead, Farrell stuck with Lackey after the pitcher lobbied for one more hitter.
“I can’t tell you what he said on the mound, but I can tell you he was emphatic,” Farrell said. “And you know what, he felt like he had plenty of gas left in the tank. He’s had a good success against Matt Holliday over the course of both of their careers. And at that point, you know, we had a five‑run lead. I got out of there. I got out of his way. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, but Taz cleaned up.
“But John Lackey never wants to come out of the game, and you love that about him.”
Lackey walked Holliday on seven pitches and wasn’t able to complete the inning. But in many ways, it helped create a more appropriate ending. Even amid chants of, “Lackey! Lackey!” toward the end of the year — most notably during his complete-game effort in the Red Sox’ playoff-clinching victory over the Orioles on Sept. 19 — the 35-year-old showed reluctance to tip his cap to the fans who got on his case for three years. Yet in this instance, the past was the past. It was all about 2013 and the World Series title that loomed.
“His turnaround mirrors that of this organization,” Farrell said. “He’s had such a good year for us, very consistent. The way he reshaped his body goes right into how well he pitched. He became more athletic, he became more accustomed to repeating his delivery, evident by the reduced number of walks. And I think it’s almost fitting that he’s on the mound to finish it out tonight. When you think of the ovation he got coming off the mound, I think people have seen the turnaround in him, they’ve seen the turnaround in us, and like I said, very fitting.”
Nothing will change Lackey’s tumultuous first three years in Boston. But one tip of the cap highlighted a rebound for the ages.