FORT MYERS, Fla. -- One year, four months, four weeks and a day.
That’s how long it has been since Eric Chavez of the Yankees grounded a single off John Lackey to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning in Yankee Stadium -- Sept. 25, 2011- -- and Terry Francona summoned Alfredo Aceves to replace Lackey, who hasn’t thrown a pitch in a game since undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery.
Saturday afternoon at JetBlue Park, Lackey returns to the mound for what is scheduled to be a one-inning stint against a split squad of Tampa Bay Rays. He is 34 years old now, coming off what statistically was the worst season ever by a Red Sox starter, the consequence of pitching with a torn ligament in his right elbow.
Youth is often an advantage for pitchers recovering from Tommy John. The Sox have a top prospect in camp, Rubby de la Rosa, who also is coming off the same surgery. Upon his return last summer with the Dodgers, he had his velocity back in the high 90s to 100 mile-an-hour range. The Red Sox are proceeding cautiously with De La Rosa this spring, limiting him to two-inning stints, but are highly confident he will make a full recovery.
The last Red Sox starting pitcher to come back from TJ surgery did not fare well. Daisuke Matsuzaka returned a year after undergoing the procedure on June 10, 2011, and went 1-7 with a 6.79 ERA last season. He turned 32 in September, and is now in camp with the Cleveland Indians on a make-good contract.
Lackey had his surgery on Nov. 1, 2011, which means by Opening Day more than 16 months will have passed. That’s more in keeping with the typical range for returning from the surgery.
Lackey has never possessed De La Rosa’s kind of velocity. But with a dramatically reduced frame -- Farrell said Lackey has lost 17 pounds, but it looks to be twice that much, at least from a year ago this time -- and with no apparent setbacks thus far this spring, Lackey could potentially make an important contribution to the Sox rotation.
“He’s felt great physically,’’ Farrell said Friday. “His arm shows the looseness we were accustomed to seeing with the Angels and in his first year here (2010). I know one thing: He feels really good about himself from a physical standpoint, and it’s translated into some confidence right now. Tomorrow begins his progression toward the start of the regular season.’’
Farrell, a former Indians pitcher who blew out his elbow during a throwing session in Fenway Park, underwent Tommy John surgery twice, missed two full seasons and made just six big-league appearances in his final three seasons.
“I think for anybody who has gone through it, you can identify with some of the things he’s gone through,’’ Farrell said of Lackey. “The rehab can be very lonely. I would hope John would be able to [go] inside that tomorrow, be able to reflect on the year-plus he’s worked his tail off to get to the point where he’s back in a major league setting.
“Tomorrow is a significant day for him, and certainly for us, as we form this rotation.’’
Lackey is scheduled to make one more start here than the other four starters, Farrell said, a concession to how long he has been away. The plan, Farrell said, is for all of the starters to throw between 24 to 27 innings this spring, with the intention of having each starter stretched out to where he will throw between 95 to 100 pitches before the team breaks camp. The club plans to increase Lackey’s workload by one inning per start.
“I think it’ll be interesting, when we get in that four-to-five-inning range, when you’re into that 65-to-75 pitch [range] and just see how he responds physically,’’ Farrell said, “because it will have been quite a long time [since he’s thrown] that number of pitches and at that intensity. Based on everything so far, he’s in a good place.
“Typically, coming back from Tommy John, the last hurdle is a mental hurdle ... but he’s starting from a good place.’’