Near the end of a roller coaster of a first half, Lackey put forth perhaps his worst effort as a major leaguer earlier this month against Toronto at home. You likely don't need a full reminder, but in the interest of being thorough, it's worth noting that he gave up seven runs on nine hits in 2 1/3 innings.
Lackey has had just two career starts which were shorter. In one, he was ejected one batter in. The other was simply a playoff tune-up after his Angels had already clinched.
There was plenty of discussion surrounding Lackey's status after the rocky outing vs. the Blue Jays. Some chose to focus on his lingering elbow issues, even mentioning the dreaded Tommy John surgery. Others wondered if he could be serviceable out of the bullpen. Disgruntled fans, always willing to use logic and sensibility, suggested he should just be cut.
Lackey said little, but did offer this nugget when asked how he moves on from such a difficult stretch: "Just keep working hard. I’ve made a lot of adjustments over time. Some of those will hopefully turn into results. Soon."
Soon, as in right away. In a three-start stretch ever since that has seen his detractors fall by the wayside, Lackey is 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA. In Friday’s 7-4 win over Seattle, he allowed just one run in seven innings, walking none for the second time this year. He has 18 strikeouts and just two walks in 19 1/3 innings during the turnaround.
"I thought he was tremendous," said manager Terry Francona. "He really pitched, and he needed to, with [Mariners ace Felix Hernandez] on the mound."
Because Hernandez was limiting the damage early, Lackey's margin for error in this one was slim. But after giving up a first-inning run in quick fashion (Ichiro Suzuki singled, stole two bases and scored on a base hit), Lackey never allowed another man to get as far as third. The first seven hits he allowed were singles. The eighth was an Ichiro double that was blooped down the left-field line and bounded into the stands.
Lackey was in control all night. Sure, it was against an offense that is historically poor, but that doesn’t mean a thing. As has been the case since his turnaround began, he located well and got ahead enough so that he could use his off-speed stuff in advantageous situations. His changeup Friday was the best he had all year, Lackey said. In the end, the big righty outdueled the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner on a steamy night at Fenway, and his woes, both physical and mental, seem to be a thing of the past.
"I feel good, man," he said before offering up a dose of reality for what can be an up and down occupation. "I'm not going to get too far ahead of myself."
That kind of long-term thinking is reserved for others on the team. Many of Lackey's teammates spoke in such a way during his struggles, saying they saw good things for his future and trusted he would be a key member of the team in the second half.
Their faith has been rewarded, and a stretch run with Lackey as a rock in the rotation may be on the horizon. The struggles of the past will be nothing more than a footnote and a tiny dose of ugliness on the back of a baseball card.
"I know his ERA is higher, I know what it is. At the end of the year it’ll be higher than we want it, but that doesn’t mean that if he pitches like this the rest of the year it’s not huge for us,” Francona said. "That's what we’re kind of hanging our hat on. I think he is, too. He has the ability to be a really good pitcher, shoulder a big burden. Looks like he wants to do that."
It didn't look anything like that on July 4. However, there was nowhere to go but up, and Lackey's rise has been notable.
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