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Is Lackey making a comeback?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  August 24, 2011 08:30 AM

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The race for Game 3 starter is now officially on, and foolish are those who discount John Lackey. The Red Sox got a much-needed win last night in the sweatbox know as Rangers Ballpark, and their beleaguered $82.5 million man was smack dab in the middle of it all.

“This is Lackey,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters after the 11-5 win that at least temporarily stopped the beating the Sox have been absorbing from the Rangers this season and beyond. “It took us a while. His ERA is higher and it’ll probably be that way, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t gotten the pitcher we want.”

In the big picture, of course, they still haven’t.

But all that matters at the moment is the here and now.

And October.

Give Lackey credit, folks. Buried in what has been the worst year of his career, he is slowly fighting his way back to respectability. Nobody should be quite ready to say yet that Lackey is living up to the five-year, $82.5 million contract the Sox bestowed upon him between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but we’ll all get past that if Lackey can pitch well when it counts. Since the All-Star break, among all major league pitchers, only Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander has more wins than Lackey.

On Independence Day, Lackey’s ERA rested at an unsightly 7.47. Since that time, his ERA has gone, start by start, to 6.84, 6.70, 6.28, 6.20, 6.23, 6.14, 6.13, 6.02 and now 5.98. That won’t win him any awards, for sure, but has thrust him legitimately into the discussion for Game 3 of the first round, particularly given that he has done more to replace Clay Buchholz than anyone else behind Jon Lester and Josh Beckett during that span.

Before we go further, a quick aside with regard to pitching statistics, at least as they pertain to evaluation: do not discount wins entirely. Most everyone agrees that wins are a team statistic more than they are an individual one, and individual wins are often a product of run support and bullpen performance as much as anything else. But what they can also measure is a pitcher’s competitiveness, particularly in a place like Texas, where the Rangers have produced the best home offense in the major leagues.

On paper, Erik Bedard (six innings, four runs) and Lackey (6.2 innings, four runs) essentially have put forth the same performance in this series. Lackey recorded two more outs and got far better run support. And yet, while Bedard was giving up a three-run homer to Mike Bapoli in a 1-0 game, Lackey ultimately stopped the bleeding during an ugly third inning in which it appeared the Red Sox’ night was unraveling.

After that, Lackey recorded 11 more outs, which should not be overlooked. There is great value in that. The ultimate goal is to win the game, by hook or by crook, by an 11-5 score or 2-1, and how a pitcher fights during the midst of any competition is always critical, especially come playoff time.

Nobody is writing off Bedard. There is still ample time left in this regular season, and we all know Lackey could go poof again at any moment. Bedard has pitched respectably (a 4.09 ERA in four starts) and gotten atrocious run support (3.27 runs per nine), but he also has blown one lead (2-0, against Cleveland) while allowing the opponents to score first in his other three starts.

Look it up. Putting up zeros early in any game is always important. The Red Sox are now 51-17 this season when scoring first, 27-33 when the opponent strikes before they do. That type of discrepancy is typical for most teams.

With regard to Lackey, competitiveness has never been the question. Not really. As a member of the Los Angeles Angels, Lackey earned his place as a staff leader largely because manager Mike Scioscia trusted him to compete in big games. Lackey’s career postseason ERA (in 14 appearanaces, 12 starts) is 3.12. Much of the concern about Lackey’s struggles in Boston centered around his stuff, which is plenty good enough to shut down the Athletics and Mariners of the world. But as we all know, the American League East is an entirely different animal that can batter a pitcher’s confidence.

Ask Josh Beckett about this. Or any array of pitchers ranging from Matt Clement to John Smoltz or Brad Penny or Jeff Suppan. Some of those pitchers were far more accomplished than others, to be sure, and some of them pitched in Boston well past their prime. But all were generally disappointments here and experienced at least some degree of success elsewhere, which is hardly a coincidence.

And then there is this: for the first time in a long time, Lackey clearly is feeling good about himself, something that was evident on the field last night. He pounded his fist into the pocket of his glove and tipped his cap when Jacoby Ellsbury made a running, lunging grab of an Ian Kinsler drive to start the fifth. (The score was 7-3 at the time.) He seemed equally pleased when Marco Scutaro ranged far to his left to snare an Elvis Andrus grounder in the next at-bat. Lackey then started a slick double play from his knees to end the sixth, snatching a Yorvit Torrealba come-backer and slinging it to Dustin Pedroia.

When Francona came out to get Lackey with two outs and a man on in the seventh, Lackey did not put up a fight. With the left-handed Josh Hamilton due up -- he homered against Lackey in the previous at-bat -- Francona called for Franklin Morales. Lackey seemed rather content with himself when he handed the ball to his manager, he watched from the top step of the dugout, fully invested in the outcome, as Morales retired Hamilton on a liner to left.

If nothing else, Lackey feels a part of the Red Sox again, like he is making a contribution. And he is.

In the bigger picture, it is worth noting how Lackey is handling his relative failure in Boston compared to someone like, say, Carl Crawford. One man seems to be fighting his way back as the other digs himself deeper. Even last year, his first in Boston, Lackey’s ERA in the second half (albeit in relatively meaningless games) was a nearly a run better (3.97) than in the first (4.78). He powers through. We should all consider this before we draw any comparisons whatsoever between Lackey and A.J. Burnett, the five-year, $82.5 million man of the New York Yankees who seems to be unraveling like a cheap ball of yarn.

Is Lackey out of the woods now? Are his problems all fixed and gone? Hardly. The Red Sox have 34 games remaining, which means Lackey still has about six starts left. For this Red Sox team as much as any other in recent memory, their success will be measured almost entirely in October, where the Sox have been destined to land since snow covered the Fenway Park lawn.

At this stage, still, nobody should be counting on Lackey in the postseason.

But last night -- and the last month -- should be a reminder that he is not to be counted out, either.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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