FORT MYERS, Fla. — Not long ago, we mentioned that all of us in the media and the fans need to give John Lackey a second chance, and Lackey has to give us a second chance.
We can report that this is happening.
There is optimism again about Lackey. As former Red Sox team physician, Thomas Gill correctly insisted to then-general manager Theo Epstein that he insert a clause to protect the Red Sox in case Lackey had Tommy John surgery. Lackey had it, and he has emerged from his darkest days.
He was beset with elbow pain for two years, and then went through a cavalcade of personal issues. His world fell apart.
But after a year away from the game, Lackey seems like a different person. Those who know him feel he’s more like the guy he was in Anaheim, happy-go-lucky off the field and fiercely competitive on it.
On Saturday, he made his fifth start — this one a minor league stint against a Triple A Tampa Bay team — and he got up to 83 pitches, even though only 48 of them were strikes. He allowed one run on two hits, walked one, and struck out five.
Lackey is always going to be a pitcher who puts the ball in play. He never will amass big strikeout numbers and his hit total always will be high since he’s a sinkerballer and the ball is bound to go through the infield now and then.
Even though he pitched against minor leaguers Saturday, it was the first time he’d gone five innings since Sept. 25, 2011, when he went six innings against the Yankees.
“I haven’t gone five innings for a long time, so, yeah, I’m sure I’ll be pretty sore tomorrow,’’ said Lackey. “But as far as the ball coming out of my hand, fastball command, it was pretty good today. I was happy with it.’’
Lackey threw his entire arsenal, including a new changeup he hopes will improve his effectiveness against lefthanded hitters. Pitching coach Juan Nieves has been working with him on it. As Nieves points out, lefthanded hitters swing at his fastball and slider, and if he can incorporate an effective changeup, it may help.
“I tried to elevate the fastball a couple of times and was able to do that,’’ he said. “I was really happy that I had a couple guys on and I went for some strikeouts and was able to get those.
“Got some swing-and-misses on some breaking pitches and that was kind of a good sign. The [changeup] is a little bit harder, a little more action. It’s almost like a slower two-seam, a little more action that way.’’
He feels his confidence growing with each outing.
“For sure,’’ he said. “I feel like as far as the rehab, we still got a few more times to go. But up to this point, it’s gone about as good as I could hope for.’’
Lackey said he no longer looks at himself as a pitcher rehabbing from elbow surgery.
“I don’t really think about the elbow stuff,’’ said Lackey. “It’s just about fine-tuning pitches and getting ready for the season now. So yeah, it’s definitely more of a normal spring training at this point.’’
Lackey will get one more start than anyone else. Nieves wants him to repeat a five-inning stint. This time it will be a night game in Clearwater, Fla., against the Phillies five days from now. While Lackey managed to muster some competitive juices in a minor league setting, he won’t have any problem doing that against a challenging Phillies lineup.
Lackey said he invoked his 10-year status in the league by avoiding a road trip to Port Charlotte. There’s also the possibility the Red Sox were trying to avoid pitching him against an AL East opponent in Tampa Bay.
The important thing for Nieves was that Lackey was able to get up and down five times.
“That’s probably the most pitches he’s thrown in quite a while now,’’ said Nieves. “He’s going to face a little more challenges because he’s going longer into games.
“His health is fine, the ball is coming out great. He was throwing from 88-92 [m.p.h.] And I believe there’s more in the tank.’’
Lackey struck out the side in the third inning. He got young Rays hitters to swing and miss at some high fastballs and got them fishing for some of his offspeed pitches in the dirt.
“His command is getting better,’’ Nieves said. “It’s a thrill to see a competitor like him out there. It’s a matter of him working through things. He’s going to have a dead arm, maybe a little sore. Maybe it won’t be firing the right way all the time, but his delivery has been great.’’
Nieves brings up a good point: When will the “dead arm stage’’ happen?
Considering that Lackey hasn’t had this much action in more than a year, it reasons that a dead arm period might occur, even before the season starts.
Lackey is currently slotted in as Boston’s fifth starter. It appears the team will take the pressure off him by keeping him slotted there as he rebuilds his arm strength. Currently it looks like a rotation of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront, and Lackey.
That setup allows manager John Farrell to break up the lefties in the rotation. In theory, Lackey will then go up against the opponents’ weaker pitchers, which could relieve more pressure and help rebuild his confidence.
“There are no restrictions on him,’’ Nieves said. “Even in bullpens. After the last time when he went four innings, I gave him the option of having an extra day. Instead of throwing a day after his start, I told him, ‘You have off Tuesday and Wednesday.’ He said, ‘No, no I want to work it out.’ ’’
So there has been no shortage of cooperation. Lackey wants to be the pitcher he was in Anaheim, the big game guy, the guy you could trust to give you a solid outing every time.
In his three years in Boston, he has not been that.
And so it’s time for a second chance.