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Red Sox have Lackey’s back

Beckett is righty’s No. 1 supporter

John Lackey doesn’t have to look far for support. The Red Sox righthander has earned the praise of teammates this season. John Lackey doesn’t have to look far for support. The Red Sox righthander has earned the praise of teammates this season. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / August 16, 2011

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That John Lackey is waiting for him in the clubhouse every day to go outside and play catch still amazes Josh Beckett, even all these months later.

Because there were so many days he expected that wouldn’t be the case.

“I tell the guy every day that he’s my hero for sticking it out and being here,’’ Beckett said. “Because you know what? I couldn’t do it. I’d have been long gone.’’

Lackey has pitched all season for the Red Sox while trying to support his wife Krista in her fight with breast cancer. There have been times when Lackey’s performance on the mound mirrored his personal anguish. But he continued to show up.

Lackey has not talked at length about his wife’s illness. He acknowledged the situation during spring training, saying that Krista had been diagnosed during the offseason. He asked that the details be kept private.

A series of positive steps came to an unexpected halt close to Opening Day, when doctors informed the couple that Krista needed more chemotherapy. She has since shown improvement, but nothing is guaranteed.

“If that would have happened to me, I would have been gone,’’ said Beckett, Lackey’s closest friend on the team. “I’m at home. There’s no way. I couldn’t do it.

“If my wife was going through that, I’d be in Texas. I’d tell the team to figure it out by themselves.’’

But Lackey kept taking the mound every five games wearing a pink rubber band on his wrist to acknowledge his wife and her struggle. Lackey was literally the worst starting pitcher in baseball through the first few weeks of the season, going 2-5 with an 8.01 earned run average.

“Everything in my life sucks right now,’’ Lackey said May 11 after giving up nine earned runs against Toronto.

He was placed on the disabled list four days later because of a sore elbow. It also was an act of mercy.

“It was a tough time for John and all of us who know him,’’ catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “You don’t wish that on anybody.’’

That Lackey had to be replaced in the rotation became a popular opinion in and around Boston. But not in the clubhouse.

“We never really doubted him or thought anything different. He takes the ball every fifth day and usually gives us a chance to win,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “What he’s going through this year and still being able to perform, you can’t really explain how much that means to the team.

“He has a lot of support around him from us. But at the same time, he comes to the field and supports us.’’

Lackey received a cortisone shot and was out for 25 days before returning. He is 9-3 in 13 starts since with an ERA of 5.17.

The last seven starts have been even better, Lackey going 6-0 with an ERA of 3.92. His consistency has helped the Red Sox overcome the loss of No. 3 starter Clay Buchholz to a back injury.

Lackey is scheduled to make his next start tomorrow against the Rays. The boos he heard from unknowing fans at Fenway Park have turned to cheers.

“It’s been fun. It’s been a stretch where we had a couple of guys out and I needed to pitch well and was able to get some wins,’’ Lackey said. “You know you have a chance every time you come to the yard to pitch because we have a special lineup. We have backup guys who would play in a lot of places.’’

Lackey has shown a better changeup since his return from the disabled list and more bite on his slider. It’s all a matter of arm strength, he said.

“Basically, it’s better health,’’ he said. “Being able to get pitches in the right locations. My velocity is better. I don’t know exactly the numbers, but I know it’s better.’’

Said Beckett: “I don’t look at it like a turnaround because I know some of the stuff he was going through. He’s sure stuck to it and now he’s getting rewarded. That’s pretty awesome.’’

Still, there have been hurdles. In June, a Twitter-based rumor suggested Lackey needed elbow surgery. He denied that, then grew understandably angry when the same question about his condition was repeated twice by reporters after a game in Philadelphia.

“Look, I’m never going to be 100 percent,’’ Lackey said. “I’ve been pitching a long time and that’s just the way it is. But I knew I could pitch and still be effective.’’

Through it all, manager Terry Francona never wavered in his support.

“We’ve always believed in him and we’ve always said that. I think he always believed in himself, too. It just wasn’t working real well for a while,’’ Francona said. “At the end of the year, his ERA might be a little higher than [normal]. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a real effective pitcher.’’

Lackey has started close to 300 games in a career that has lasted 10 seasons. He wasn’t going to let a few bad months define him.

“I have a track record,’’ he said, smiling. “People may not know that around here, but I do. I know who I am. I know I’ll be there at the end.’’

That lesson has registered with Beckett.

“Lack has that belief system that comes from experience. You learn to keep moving forward and do what you did that made you successful in the first place,’’ Beckett said.

“He’s told me a few times that one of the reasons he came to Boston was to get another ring. He’s showing that right now, how much it means to him. I hope people out there appreciate it. Because I know we all do.

“It’s like I said, the guy is my hero.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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