DETROIT — John Lackey has been an acquired taste for Red Sox fans. For some, it will never happen.
The Red Sox paid a premium for Lackey before the 2010 season and did not get the return expected. He had a 5.26 earned run average in his first two seasons pitching for teams that did not make the playoffs.
That he gutted out the second half of the 2011 season with a torn elbow ligament was a litigating factor only in some minds.
Lackey also lost points by refusing to play nice. He said what was on his mind to the media, not the usual happy-talk cliches. His behavior on the mound reflected that same lack of filter. Lackey argued with managers when they came to take him out or threw up his arms in disgust when something went wrong.
When Tom Brady barks at teammates, he’s a leader of men. When Lackey did it he was showing them up.
That Lackey actually had the support of his teammates and was a popular figure in the clubhouse didn’t matter. He was an easy target for fans and some in the media, the classic overpaid out-of-towner Boston loves to bury.
By the end of the 2011 season, Lackey’s postgame media sessions were painful and to this day he does not tip his cap to a crowd that once savaged him just for walking out to the mound.
Tuesday’s 1-0 victory against Detroit in Game 3 of the ALCS should change Lackey’s legacy. This was the kind of game that made him so popular with the Angels.
Lackey went pitch for pitch, zero for zero, against Justin Verlander on the road in a playoff game and never blinked. He was so good that when John Farrell came to take him out in the seventh inning, Twitter exploded with calls to leave him in.
Lackey allowed four hits and struck out eight without a walk. He left the game grudgingly with two outs in the seventh inning, shaking his head when Farrell came to the mound and muttering a curse.
Farrell, a former pitcher, understood the emotions.
“If you poll any starting pitcher they want that moment,” he said. “They want the importance of every pitch to be on it, particularly this late in the season. They want that responsibility. John is no different.”
Lackey and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia worked smoothly all game, mixing in an effective curveball to complement good command of his fastball.
Lackey’s best work came in the fifth inning. Biogenesis All-Star Jhonny Peralta led off with a double and took third when Alex Avila grounded out. Lackey struck out Omar Infante then got Andy Dirks to ground to second. Lackey pumped his fist as he walked off the field.
Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Victor Martinez were 2 for 9 against Lackey. In every way that he could pitch well, he did.
Lackey dropped his postseason ERA to 3.10 in 16 appearances. October has long been one of his best months and here he is again, pitching a team into a series lead. The Red Sox have won both games he has started in the postseason. His next start could be in the World Series.
Lackey, frustrated so often in his four seasons with the Sox, couldn’t stop smiling after the game.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I knew I was going to have to pitch pretty good today.”
Lackey was at the podium with Mike Napoli, whose home run provided all the run support he needed.
“I got to see John when he was really good in Anaheim. Coming up as a rookie I looked up to him. He was a veteran to me, showed me the way on the field, off the field, how to carry myself,” Napoli said.
“So to see what he’s gone through and to bounce back like this, it’s awesome. It’s a good feeling just to see a friend be able to overcome some stuff and get healthy and be who he is.”
• For the postseason, Red Sox pitchers have a 2.59 earned run average over seven games. A team that led baseball in scoring is now leaning on its pitching. Tuesday was the first 1-0 game the Sox have won this season.
• Detroit’s three starters have allowed two runs and struck out 35 over 21 innings in the series. But the Tigers are down a game. “The runs are pretty stingy,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “This is what it’s about in the postseason, good pitching.”
• David Ortiz played in his 64th postseason game for the Sox, a franchise record. He had been tied with Jason Varitek.
• The Red Sox had several young players working out at their complex in Florida in case they were needed but they were allowed to go home.
• The win was the third 1-0 postseason victory for the Sox, the first since Game 1 of the 1986 World Series.
• The first three games of the series have been decided by one run.
• Jake Peavy is still excited about the grand slam Ortiz hit Sunday night. “David Ortiz, what can you say? They just inducted him in the Hall of Fame. I thought we should have an induction ceremony yesterday after that, that just solidifies this guy’s legacy,” Peavy said. “He’s a stud and has a flair for the dramatic and wants to be in that situation.”