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October 15. 2013 9:11PM

Pitching

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Advantage Boston, on Lackey's pitching


Boston Red Sox starting pitcher John Lackey (41) throws against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning in game three of the American League Championship Series baseball game at Comerica Park. (Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)

LAST SATURDAY, the same day the club returned to the American League Championship Series, marked the second anniversary of the Boston Globe bombshell detailing the beer-and-chicken-fed demise of the 2011 Red Sox.

The report essentially charged that some players, particularly the pitchers, weren’t fully committed to winning as things fell apart in September.
John Lackey was one of three players mentioned in the opening paragraph of that expose, alleging that he was playing video games, ordering fast food and downing frosty beverages while his teammates fought for their season.

Later in the story, it noted that Lackey was being paid $16.5 million per season, yet had pitched worse that year than any regular starter in Red Sox history.

And that seemed to be final straw for the relationship between him and a fan base that held him in such contempt that he became one of the poster children for the failure of that season.

But there’s now a chance, after what he did Tuesday, that Lackey’s role in that collapse will not be the first thing fans think of when they remember the right-hander’s time with the Red Sox.

As Boston’s Game 3 starter, he drew the assignment of going head-to-head with Justin Verlander. And, as it turned out, one of his generation’s premier pitchers was on top of his game.

But Lackey was better. Lackey was brilliant. Lackey was every bit what the Sox thought they were acquiring, and probably then some. Verlander made just one mistake, a solo homer to Mike Napoli in the top of the seventh, but Lackey made none, leaving the mound after 6 2/3 scoreless innings, then watching as Boston’s three best relievers made a 1-0 lead stand up, and moved the Sox within two wins of the World Series. Boston now leads the ALCS, 2-1.

The Sox hoped Sunday night’s late-inning rally would carry forward into Game 3, but instead it was more of the same early for the Boston offense, which was hitless into the fifth against Verlander and helpless as he struck out nine of the first 15 batters he faced.

By the time he was done, he’d surrendered only four hits and a walk in eight innings, and combined with the efforts of Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, Boston had managed all of six hits and two runs while striking out 35 times in 21 innings against Detroit’s starters in this series.

It might’ve signified a rather discouraging regression for the Sox bats, except Lackey’s ability to match Verlander zero for zero allowed them to stay positive.

The big Texan pitched out of some trouble in the first, when the Tigers put men at the corners with a couple of singles. Then he shook off the potential stiffness prompted by a 17-minute power outage delay by returning to the mound for the second inning and starting a run in which he struck out four in a row.

Eventually he retired 10 in a row. When that run was interrupted by Jhonny Peralta’s leadoff double in the fifth, he might’ve turned in his most impressive work of the evening. After Peralta, Alex Avila did his job by pulling a grounder that got the runner to third base with one out. That brought Omar Infante to the plate in a situation where just making contact would either put pressure on the Red Sox to make a play defensively or bring home the run.

And making contact is Infante’s specialty. He came up 25 plate appearances shy of qualifying, but if he’d played enough this season, his rate of 10.2 at-bats per strikeout would have made him the toughest man in the American League to strike out.

But that’s what Lackey did. He got Infante to swing and miss, something he did to Tiger hitters 16 times, and with that there were two outs. From there he just needed to get Andy Dirks, and he was so excited when he did that that he ran all the way over and gave a firm slap to the backside of first baseman Napoli just after he caught the third out.

Lackey got the side in order once more in the sixth, then reluctantly left things to the bullpen with two on and two out in the seventh. It wasn’t the best performance from that group, though Craig Breslow stranded two in the seventh, Junichi Tazawa struck out Miguel Cabrera with two aboard in the eighth, and Koji Uehara nailed down a four-out save that featured a Prince Fielder strikeout and a double play.

In a season where run support and the occasional bullpen hiccup cost him often enough that he finished with a 10-13 record, Lackey’s teammates made sure they didn’t let him down when it mattered most. They got him the win he deserved.

A win, two years removed from scandal, that may cause Red Sox fans to see that he never buys a beer in Boston again.

Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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