John Lackey’s long road back to the World Series

October 24, 2013

 

On Wednesday afternoon, before the Red Sox seized World Series control with their Game 1 shellacking of the Cardinals, John Lackey was asked what he could take away from his previous experience in the World Series. “That was like 11 years ago, I think,” Lackey replied. “That I’m old, I guess.”

Lackey is 35 now, full of scars from the winding career that unfolded between his rookie season and tonight, when he’ll pitch his first World Series game since he won Game 7 in 2002 and sealed a title for the Angels. Back then, Lackey was what Game 2 counterpart Michael Wacha is now, a rookie right-hander who fortified a rotation in the postseason.

After a stellar run in Anaheim, a rocky start in Boston followed by abject humiliation, Tommy John surgery and an out-of-nowhere comeback in 2013, it’s hard to say what exactly Lackey is now. He is apparently well-liked by teammates, but it’s hard to find a lot of joy watching him pitch with that permanent sourpuss. He’s been around more than a decade, but he is defined by three things: Winning a World Series clincher, yelling at managers when they want to take him out and washing down fried chicken with Bud Light in the Red Sox clubhouse.

We can say this for sure: Lackey has been undeniably excellent this year. He punched up a 3.52 ERA, better than Sox Game 1 starter Jon Lester. He had a 4.03 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the best of his career. He lost weight, shed his rancorous recent past, grew a beard and kicked tail. Lackey was the embodiment of the Red Sox’ disaster than began in September 2011, and he may also be the embodiment of their rapid redemption.

For years, Lackey was this really good pitcher who year after year got overlooked and helped the Angels reach the playoffs. After the 2009 season, the Red Sox signed him to a five-year, $82 million contract. Theo Epstein had an unspoken policy against signing pitchers to five-year deals, but Lackey seemed like the right exception: He was consistent, durable, a stand-up teammate and frequently dominant.

In Boston, he was none of those things. First he pitched like a run-of-the-mill free agent bust, posting a 4.40 ERA. He was essentially league average. Then he became a disaster. He punched up a 6.14 ERA, became one of the ringleaders of the Sox’ chicken-and-beer soirees and came off as an unrepentant jerk about the whole thing. For good measure, he underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2012.

“I’m not really concerned about some of that outside stuff,” Lackey said in his press conference. “I know who I was in the clubhouse and where I stood with the guys in the clubhouse. That means more to me than about anything.  You want to be on a good team. You want to try to help out the boys.  You want to pull your weight, and that’s been fun this year.”

TONIGHT’S GAME
Game 2, St. Louis at Boston: Fox, 7:30 p.m.

St. Louis: Wacha (4-1, 2.78); Boston: Lackey (10-13, 3.52)

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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