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Lackey's extreme makeover a real beaut

Posted by Obnoxious Boston Fan  September 20, 2013 06:00 AM

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2011.

More like 2011 BC.

[And we don't mean Boston College.]

The Red Sox Thursday night clinched the first playoff berth in the American League, and their first since 2009. It came via a most improbable manner, a complete-game, two-hit 3-1 victory from John Lackey over the unbeatable and invincible Baltimore Orioles.

"The Red Sox will clinch a playoff spot against the Orioles with more than a week to play in the season thanks to a complete-game victory by John "Bleeping" Lackey."

The guy who had that one in the 2013 preseason pool faced longer odds than this week's $400 million Powerball winner. There wasn't enough Bug Light in the 2011 Red Sox clubhouse to make fans or sportswriters drunk-Tweet a line like that seven months ago.

"The Red Sox can clinch the American League East Friday night."

That's not a drunk-Tweet, either.

No one on the 2011 Red Sox personified all that was wrong that team more than Lackey. He was the poster child for "chicken and beer," along with his long-since-departed pal Josh Beckett. Lackey was reviled, vilified and despised.

Remember this classic featuring your favorite Red Sox pitchers:

We'll all be linking beer a lot more once the Red Sox wrap up the A.L. East.

Lackey was in exile during 2012, although he wasn't. And when it was finally reported that he was hanging around the clubhouse "double-fisting," Red Sox fans once again went ballistic.

"Lot of fun," Lackey said to NESN's Jenny Dell when it was over Thursday. "It's been great, having a lot of fun with the boys."

It was that fun with the boys that got him into so much trouble a couple of years ago.

Lackey began the 2013 season vastly new and improved. He was fully healed from Tommy John surgery and had shed about 25 pounds. He was also newly divorced. While the circumstances of that break-up further dinged his image, his wife was suffering with cancer, it's undeniable that Lackey was in a better place all the way around as the Red Sox began this "Improbable Dream."

The Red Sox earned their playoff berth by 200,000 whiskers. The Fenway Park crowd, none of who sported fake beards to get in for $1, cheered wildly with each of Lackey's 13 pitches in the ninth. Not only did they sense the pending arrival of a playoff berth [it's a boy, with a beard!], they were also witnessing the culmination one of the dramatic athletic comebacks/transformations/reconciliations in the history of Boston sports.

A 10-12 record, 3.44 ERA, 156 strikeouts and a 1.16 WHIP never looked so finger-licking good. Stacy and Clinton's best transformation has nothing on Lackey in 2013.

Lackey's gone from the doghouse's outhouse to this $4.1 million, three-bedroom condo unit at 45 Province in Boston.

By the end of the game, the Fenway masses stood in unison hailing the pitcher who has become the anchor of the rotation since his return from the disabled list in April. A cathartic moment that would indeed humble Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Six times the Red Sox had been shutout in games started by Lackey. But this season Lackey devoured innings like Kobayashi eating his way through a wall of Fenway Franks. Lackey reached the seventh inning in all but once start since June 10 and has logged 183.1 innings this season. The one game where Lackey didn't reach the seventh during that run was his win over the Yankees on Sept. 7, where he was spotted a 12-2 lead and left with the score 12-7.

His Fenway Park ERA this year is an El Tiante-like 2.47.

More importantly, Lackey kept calm and carried on throughout his hard-luck loses and no-decisions. His Brady-esque death stares and those glove-slams were minimized if not eliminated. Perhaps his karmatic low point came against the Yankees on Friday the 13th of September. In that game, he was removed with a 4-2 lead in the seventh. Craig Breslow eventually gave up a two-run double to Robinson Cano. Both runs were charged to Lackey.In the top of the eighth, with the score tied 4-4, Jarrod Saltalamacchia's grand slam powered the Red Sox to an 8-4 victory.

No clubhouse walls were destroyed in the making of that no-decision.

The Baseball Gods then determined that Lackey had performed enough penance. Thursday night, the Red Sox scored three runs in the second inning. That was enough. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh. Lackey was spelled with eight K's on this night and 82 of his 113 pitches were strikes. He faced 31 batters and threw 25 first-pitch strikes.

He even knew how to end the no-no bid in a grand way by giving up a home run to Adam Jones over the left-field wall that, according to NASA, joined Tony Perez's blast from Game 7 the 1975 World Series in geocentric orbit above Fenway Park.

Lackey pitched with all the grit and balls that Theo Epstein hoped he could when he signed Lackey to his infamous five-year, $82.5 million deal before the 2010 season.

"Watching him from across the field, we've always seen him as a big-game pitcher, a top-of-the-rotation guy, and a really tough competitor," said Epstein when Lackey was signed in December of 2009.

Of course, Epstein was at the front of the line when it came to throwing Lackey under the bus after 2011, blaming Lackey's signing on "The Monster."

"Had we been completely true to our baseball philosophy that we set out and believed in and followed, we probably wouldn't have made certain moves that we made anyway, moves that, as I look back on them, they were probably moves too much of convenience, of placating elements that shouldn't have been important,"Epstein told WEEI's Alex Speier in 2012. "Those were my mistakes."

No worries, Theo. There are millions of words being consumed throughout New England today. If being wrong feels this good, the Red Sox don't want to be right.

Unlike 2011 and 2012, the Red Sox have owned September in 2013. Boston is 12-5 this month and has scored a major-league best 108 runs. Lackey was 0-2 with a mind-numbing 9.13 ERA in 23.2 innings pitched in September of 2011 as he struggled with elbow problems, despite all those 12-ounce curls.

Lackey was the only pitcher on the Red Sox who won a game the last time Boston was in the playoffs. Unfortunately he was pitching for the Angels at the time with batterymate Mike Napoli.

Thursday night, he dominated the Orioles like he dominated the Red Sox on that Thursday night in Game 1 of the 2009 ALDS.

"There was no doubt he was going to walk out there in the ninth," John Farrell said.

It seemed doubtful Farrell would have had any say in the matter given Lackey's grim and determined demeanor as he walked off the mound following the eighth inning and his 100th pitch.

"The remake of John Lackey mirrors the remake of this team," added the 2013 A.L. Manager of the Year.

A remake that's much better than the original.

Don't forget to visit our Obnoxious Boston Fan blog. As always, let us know what you think. Post your thoughts here, on our Obnoxious Boston Fan Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or e-mail me at obnoxiousbost onfan@hotmail.com.

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