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New spin on things

Rotation sparks a turnaround

John Lackey, who has allowed just one run in his last 14 innings, is 4-0 vs. the Angels. John Lackey, who has allowed just one run in his last 14 innings, is 4-0 vs. the Angels. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)
By Nick Cafardo
April 25, 2011

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — What’s the real reason the Red Sox rotation now looks like Sandy Koufax, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Jim Palmer, and Tom Seaver?

It’s because they’re pitching like they’re ticked off. And they are.

This starting staff was 2-7 with a 6.71 ERA over the first 12 games and maligned all over Red Sox Nation. They all felt the heat and read and heard the words. They now have gone 7-1 with a 0.88 ERA over their last nine starts.

John Lackey admitted yesterday he was angry when his turn was skipped after the April 13 rainout vs. Tampa Bay. Manager Terry Francona said it wasn’t because Lackey was struggling, rather it was because he needed to get the staff lined up properly. But one normally doesn’t skip a $17 million a year starter.

Let’s face it, Lackey wasn’t very good early on. But over the last two starts, he’s hurled 14 innings and allowed one run, including yesterday’s eight shutout innings. Lackey gave up six hits, issued one walk, and had six strikeouts in a 7-0 win over the Angels, beating up his former team, against which he’s 4-0 with a 2.45 ERA.

Many seem surprised that the back end of the rotation, especially Josh Beckett, along with Daisuke Matsuzaka and now Lackey, have put together so many good starts in a row.

Lackey pitched yesterday like he does when he’s going good. He had the back-door curveball working, a good fastball, he pitched to contact, and he had the aggressive Angels eating out of his hand. This is the Lackey that won so many games with the Angels. This is why he got the big contract.

Ticked off, all right.

Beckett was irked because he knew he was better than he showed last year and better than he showed in spring training and in his first start. He’s a pitcher with immense pride. There’s no way he wanted to morph into some middle-of-the-rotation starter after having such an impressive track record in big games.

Matsuzaka? He thought he was going to get booted from the rotation and since then he’s thrown back-to-back one-hit outings. He said Saturday night that he’s motivated to keep pitching at a high level with the idea that he still could be replaced. Matsuzaka is also more sensitive than people think. He’s seen the “trade him’’ commentaries in the media, and the fact is, he wants to remain with the Sox and finish his contract here. He wants to be a star again in the eyes of the Japanese sporting public.

But back to Lackey . . . who has been given more abuse than him?

All of these starters have deep pride, and they hate hearing that stuff, they hate hearing they’re not that good anymore. And they’ve gone out and done something about the perception that so many fans and media had when they started the season so poorly.

Lackey had never been skipped in the rotation in his eight-year career.

“It pissed me off, yeah,’’ he said.

Was it extra motivation?

“What do you think?’’ he said. “What did it look like?’’

It looked like Lackey wanted to prove a couple of things — that the Angels made a terrible mistake not keeping him and that he never wants to be skipped over again the rest of his career.

It ended up a good move by Francona, who has seemed to push the right buttons lately. After Matsuzaka’s second straight gem, the manager kidded that maybe he should threaten job security in the rotation more.

He knew Lackey probably wasn’t going to be too happy about being skipped. He also knows the head of steam Beckett gets every time he takes the mound, and who knows if he has someone in the pitcher’s ear saying, “They’re doubting you Josh. They’re doubting you.’’

Even closer Jonathan Papelbon’s favorite undershirt says, “Doubt Me.’’

It’s amazing that even the highest-paid players need something to get them going.

It’s almost like in football, in which players thrive on bulletin board material in the locker room leading up to a game. They create scenarios in their heads to get them motivated — whether they’re real or made up. “Those fans are against me. Nobody thinks I can pitch. Well, I’ll show them.’’ Sox pitchers have done the same.

So the question is, is this starting staff the one of the first 12 games or the one of the last nine?

The other encouraging thing from yesterday was Lackey and Jarrod Saltalamacchia working well together. There are a lot of Salty-bashers out there, who don’t believe he catches well, but Lackey went out of his way to compliment Saltalamacchia.

“I’ve got to give Jarrod a lot of credit,’’ he said. “I thought we were on the same page, the best we’ve been since the start of the season . . . The rhythm of the game was the best it’s been this year.’’

And that’s great motivation for Saltalamacchia as well. Don’t think he hasn’t heard the calls to oust him in favor of Jason Varitek, or for the Sox to go out and find a better receiver. When you catch a shutout, you’re doing something right, as well.

“Yeah we felt real comfortable,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “We had a good game plan going in. He was throwing the ball where he wanted to throw the ball. And that makes things easier.

“It’s been fun. It’s taken time here and there, but we’re getting together. It’s tough the way we started, because every mistake we made got hit. These guys have a game plan, and I’m getting on the same page with that.’’

Motivation is a beautiful thing. Carl Crawford (a homer yesterday) has been motivated to break out of his slump because he’s sick of hearing about it. Dustin Pedroia is always motivated because he always feels he has to overcome his small stature. It’s Papelbon’s walk year. It’s the end of David Ortiz’s contract. It’s Jed Lowrie’s chance to show he can be an everyday player.

It also could be Marco Scutaro’s last season with the Sox. Adrian Gonzalez wants to show what the fuss was about. Jacoby Ellsbury wants to prove he’s not the fragile player he’s been portrayed as. Mike Cameron wants to keep playing beyond this season. J.D. Drew, if it is his last season before retirement, wants to go out with good memories.

And the Sox want to be the first team that wins it all after an 0-4 start.

Kick them in the teeth and let them respond.

They like it. They really do.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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