FORT MYERS, Fla. ? John Lackey and Jon Lester had a quick game of catch Monday afternoon in Fort Myers. When a few of Lester?s tosses sailed a bit, Lackey was quick to joke with him, telling Lester he has a month and a half to get it right.
It was just a little ribbing between friends, but may be indicative of the comfort level for Lackey in his second year in camp. Following an up-and-down 2010 campaign, he is poised to parlay a new degree of relaxation into something special.
Just walking into the clubhouse was that much easier this time around.
“I know everybody?s name already this year,” Lackey said Monday in Fort Myers. “It?s a lot nicer this year just to be welcomed back instead of trying to learn everything.”
Although he was a seasoned veteran in Anaheim, where he won 102 games and made 12 postseason starts in eight years, Lackey did undergo a bit of a crash course upon coming to Boston last year. Learning a new city, new teammates and — most importantly — new and often better opponents, made for some bumps in the road.
They weren’t major — Lackey still led the team in starts and innings pitched and his 14 wins were tied for second-most in his career — but those adjustments to the American League East schedule were just enough to hurt some of his other numbers and cause some onlookers to label it an off year for the right-hander. Lackey?s 4.40 ERA was his highest since 2004 and his 1.419 WHIP was a career high.
“It was tough, for sure,” he said of the adjustments. “I wouldn?t say more so [than I expected]. I was expecting it would be a change. It took some adjustments and I think I made some of those toward the end.
“There were definitely some moments I could look at that were pretty good, a lot of quality starts,” he added.” But they were more the three-run variety, just barely quality starts. In the past it was more zero, one, two runs, that kind of stuff. I definitely think I learned a lot.”
It wasn?t extreme in the numbers, but what Lackey learned began to manifest itself as the season progressed. He dropped his ERA to 3.97 after the All-Star break and 10 of his last 15 starts were of the quality variety.
Manager Terry Francona, who doesn?t need such numbers to make his analysis, could see a change.
“I thought he limited mistakes a little better [in the second half],” Francona said. “He would have a way sometimes of throwing six innings and then in the seventh inning giving up a three-run homer. He made some mistakes and he paid for them. He made a lot fewer mistakes as the season progressed. I think it?s realistic that when you come to the American League East, it?s different. It?s hard.”
With a little momentum from the second half of the season and a year in Boston under his belt, Lackey was able to have a very good offseason. He mixed in a new cardio regimen (shuffling between three different machines for an hour a day caused him to watch a lot of SportsCenter, he said) that has him in camp more than 10 pounds lighter than he was in 2010.
The decision to drop some weight was not due to a directive from the team. Lackey simply felt that it took some time for him to develop his arm strength last year. By entering camp in better shape, he hopes to hit the ground running this time around.
Lackey added that his struggles may have been overblown a bit, but he knows that the criticisms would go away if he was able to make an improvement.
“I?m not saying I pitched great, not at all,” he said. “I definitely could’ve pitched better.”
The adjustments have been made. Some weight has been shed. And John Lackey is no longer just trying to find his way. In fact, Francona called him ?one of our leaders.”
It?s much easier to lead when you?re comfortable in your surroundings. After a year of adjustments, it appears he is.