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Lackey ultimate reality check for Red Sox

Posted by Obnoxious Boston Fan  October 15, 2013 05:00 AM

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Thumbnail image for John Lackey AP.jpg"Super Sunday" gave way to "Hangover Monday."

Now it's "Back to Reality Tuesday."

The Red Sox and Tigers resume the American League Championship Series Tuesday afternoon [4:07 p.m., FOX] with Game 3 at Comerica Park in Detroit with John Lackey getting the start for Boston.

Whether or not Lackey is the ultimate buzz kill [irony noted] for Boston will depend on how well he spots his fast ball and cutter, the Tigers' lineup and the Red Sox offense building off Sunday's Game 2 victory.

Game 2 saw David Ortiz set the WABAC Machine for "October 2004" with his series-saving-for-the-moment grand slam in the eighth inning only to find out that Tom Brady was already waiting for him on the other side with Sherman and Mr. Peabody.

His Mother of All Momentum Swings not only tied the game at 5-5 but made Boston Police Officer and bullpen cop Steve Horgan the most popular member of the Massachusetts law enforcement community this side of State Police Sgt. Dignam.

The Red Sox won in true 2013 walkoff fashion, 6-5.

OK, so what can they do for an encore.

The internet said there was only a 0.2 percent chance that the Red Sox and Patriots could both come back the way they did Sunday. The chances of Lackey throwing a complete-game victory for Boston Tuesday are even smaller and the outcome would be equally miraculous.

The decision to start Lackey in Game 3 in Motown instead of in Game 2 at Fenway could have been a fateful one for Manager John Farrell. Now, it may be his best move since being the guy who got to follow in Bobby Valentine's hoof prints.

Sunday, Clay Buchholz came down with a heavy case of Schiarlditis against the Tigers in the sixth inning. Until then, he appeared have weathered the after-effects of Evan Longoria's three-run home in Boston's lone ALDS loss at Tampa Bay. His end struck with nearly the same velocity as Ortiz's home run. Against the sharpest claws in the Tigers' lineup, he was batted around like a wad of cat nip.

With one out, Miguel Cabrera stroked a high changeup into the left-field Monster Seats. Prince Fielder, or was that Vince Wilfork, put his weight into a double off the wall and Victor Martinez followed with a RBI double. Buchholz's night ended after he hung a fastball to Alex Avila that eventually stopped in the Tigers' bullpen to make it 5-0.

Plenty of material to indict Farrell on a charge of mismangement, until Ortiz bailed out his clean-shaven skipper, Buchholz, the Red Sox and the other half of New England's sports soul.

Now, it's Lackey's turn to justify his manager's confidence in his ability to be tough on the road. His "Haters Gonna Hate" 2013 tour will try again to deliver that singular performance that will define his career with the Red Sox in a post-beer-and-chicken world.

Lackey got another sort-of-well-deserved standing ovation at Fenway Park when he left Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rays after 5.1 innings. Lackey gave up four runs and seven hits but got the win in a 7-4 victory, thanks in part to the fact that the Red Sox gave him the run support he had been so sorely lacking all season. [The Red Sox were shutout in six of his 13 losses this year.] Good enough, but not great.

It's obvious from what's been reported in State Run Media from Yawkey Way that Lackey has the respect and support of his teammates, except perhaps when they're at bat. He's been adored by the same crowd that not only booed him in the waning days of 2011 but cursed his very existence on the Red Sox throughout the cold, dark, nights of their Nuclear Winter. There are still pockets of resistance across Red Sox Nation and on the interwebs, but as a whole, we're lovin' ourselves some John Lackey in October of 2013.

Waiting for Lackey to have his "J.D. Drew-grand-slam" moment during Boston's five-year, $82.5 million contract internment may ultimately prove fruitless. Lackey's post-Tommy-John-surgical "redemption" in 2013 has come in small pieces. He's working off his contract in thousands, not millions.

It reminds us of the adage about putting a frog in a pot of water. If you toss him in when it's boiling, the frog will hop out. But if you leave him there when the water is cool and slowly heat it up, he'll sit in there and cook without realizing what's happening to him. Lackey has slowly and steadily become a bona fide and crucial piece of any championship puzzle without many causal observers realizing it.

Given the proclivities of each lineup and of Farrell and Jim Leyland, a complete-game in this series would be a real surprise. Tigers ace and one-time Red Sox prospect Anibal Sanchez got pulled after six innings Saturday and he was throwing a no-hitter. Of course, if Lackey takes a no-hitter into the seventh Tuesday, Farrell will need to remove him via text message or Twitter to be physically clear of any impending wrath.

But Lackey is just one bad start away from seeing it all slip away. He is working without a tightrope, never mind a net. All those Lackey warm and fuzzies will turn cold and harsh with one bad postseason outing. He won't get the same cushion given to Buchholz. Rightly or wrongly, he's too easy a target. While Red Sox fans and those media members who chronicle the team have given Lackey his due this year, he will get no quarter if he gives up six runs in three innings Tuesday in a loss.

His political capital was expended sometime between his appearance in Kevin Fowler's "Hell Yeah, I Like Beer" video with his Red Sox teammates, the surgeon's table and $32 million or so he pocketed for his effort in 2011-12. His 2013 regular-season 3.52 ERA, those 189.1 innings he devoured or the 161 strikeouts he registered compared to just 40 walks won't mean much if the Red Sox lose Tuesday's game due to Lackey's performance.

"He's not short on pitching in unfavorable conditions," Farrell said of Lackey's start Tuesday. "Given what he's come through, I'm sure that he'll relish the moments he's out there, knowing that he's come back from Tommy John [surgery], the way he's reshaped his own perception and certainly his body, and we're looking forward to John being on the mound."

GIF of Hunter
[via For The Win/@CJZero]

Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, last-seen ass-up heading over Red Sox bullpen wall as catcher Mani Martinez made the coolest grab of the year, was Lackey's teammate the last time he pitched in the ALCS, with Anaheim in 2009.

Hunter told MLB.com that he's having trouble balancing the Lackey he knew with the Lackey fans in Boston saw implode and dissolve.

"I didn't get that because Lackey is freaking awesome, man ... Good in the clubhouse, fun off the field. Always smiling, always laughing. He's a good teammate. He's just a competitor on the mound. He goes crazy. He wants that big pitch," Hunter said.

Lackey will throw plenty of big pitches on Tuesday.

And perhaps he might finally be that "freaking awesome" pitcher Boston and the Red Sox have been waiting for since 2010.

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 obnoxiousbostonfan@hotmail.com.

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