Before yesterday, the last time John Lackey started a postseason game, he helped the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim eliminate the Boston Red Sox in 2009. But After the Angels failed to go deep in the playoffs that year, he signed a five-year deal worth more than $80 million with the Red Sox, who have won two World Series titles in the last nine years.
Lackey’s biggest career win is and always will be Game 7 of the 2002 World Series over Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in his rookie year with the Angels. But his outstanding outing late yesterday afternoon (during which he gave up no runs and set a new career high in strikeouts in 6.2 IP) should now rank among his most impressive achievements as well. Having pitched 2013 with a new and slimmer look and a healthier right elbow that was repaired in 2012 via Tommy John surgery, it was only hoped that Lackey could regain some of that postseason magic he had in the past. He pitched okay in his first playoff game with the Sox in 2013, Game 2 of the ALDS against Tampa Bay, having surrendered four runs in 5.1 IP. It was good enough for him to earn the win, but against an elite team like Detroit, with the best starting staff in the game and one of the best offenses (along with the Sox), he knew he’d have to do better than that in his next start.
So when Lackey outdueled former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander yesterday, it was not only much better than the Tampa game, it was a rather shocking upset, since Verlander has been virtually unhittable this postseason. Upsets in sports are common, however. There’s one in college football practically every week, and in tennis all the time, for instance – speaking of which, big tournaments like the Australian Open will be happening sooner than you think. But Lackey’s dominating performance was especially unexpected because it occurred on the road, where his ERA in the regular season was mediocre (well over 4.00). Sox manager John Farrell had purposely made sure he made his first postseason start against Tampa Bay at home in Fenway Park, where he had much better numbers.
For whatever reason (a manager’s hunch, perhaps), he chose at the start of the ALCS to hold Lackey back for the pivotal Game 3, while giving Game 2 on Sunday night at home to Clay Buchholz. The latter was disappointing, giving up five earned runs. David Ortiz’s eighth inning grand slam and Jared Saltalamacchia’s game-winning ninth inning hit erased that memory, however, and handed the Sox one of the most incredible comebacks in recent memory – and it happened just hours after Dustin Pedroia’s “boy” Tom Brady’s incredible game-winning TD throw with five seconds left that lifted the New England Patriots over the New Orleans Saints, 30-27. So whatever you thought of Farrell’s starting pitching rotation decisions at the outset, it paid off with not one but TWO memorable wins in three nights that have given the BoSox a 2-1 series lead going into Game 4 tonight. (The pitching matchup is Jake Peavy for Boston and Doug Fister for the home team.)
What really made the difference yesterday in Game 3 was Lackey’s ability to keep hitters guessing at the plate. Usually, 10% of his pitches are curveballs. Yesterday, 20% of them were, and he got many of them over the plate for strikes. With his combination of well-placed fastballs and offspeed stuff, Lackey struck out a career postseason high eight batters. A 17-minute power outage at Comerica Park early on also may have been a gift for Lackey, as Tigers hitters were aggressive and getting on base in the early innings. After the lights came back on, he was pretty much “lights out” (pun totally intended) until the seventh inning when the bullpen took over for him.
As for the Sox bullpen, it has been incredible this series. Between the likes of lefty specialist Craig Breslow, righty Junichi Tazawa and closer Koji Uehara, it has given up zero runs in 8.1 innings pitched so far in this series. Over the last 2.1 innings in Game 3, the bullpen successfully held down the 1-0 that first baseman Mike Napoli gave the Sox with a mid-game solo shot off Verlander. (Note: Napoli’s first career homer coincidentally came off Verlander in 2006.) The highlight of those pivotal shutdown innings yesterday included Tazawa and Uehara respectively striking out the game’s best (though clearly unhealthy) hitter Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to end the eighth inning, leaving the game-tying runner Austin Jackson stranded on third base.
If John Lackey gets to pitch again this postseason (which is likely), he will either pitch in a possible Game 7 in this series, or be in the starting rotation for the World Series against either the Los Angeles Dodgers or St. Louis Cardinals. Either way, he will carry with him the experience of having succeeded in both scenarios. But before getting excited at such possibilities, as Bill Belichick might say, let’s just take it one game at a time.