BOSTON -- John Lackey's first two years with the Red Sox offered a study in body language. Often noted as a pitcher who is not shy about exhibiting his frustrations on the mound, Lackey had many such moments.
The John Lackey of 2013 presents the observer with a different test subject. Not only has he taken to manager John Farrell's recommendation that pitchers throw with greater pace, but there is a sense of purpose with Lackey's game, almost as if he's intent on making up for lost time.
Coming off what was his best start of the season Sunday in Minnesota, Lackey kept rolling with seven strong innings in an 8-1 drubbing of the Cleveland Indians on Friday. He yielded just two singles and tied a season high with eight strikeouts while dropping his ERA through seven starts to 2.72.
And through it all, he had the look of a guy in complete control of the situation, which has allowed him to put forth one of the more enjoyable stretches of his spotty Red Sox career.
"It's been fun getting out there with the guys, a great group of guys to compete with, and have success and be healthy," he said. "Not fighting a whole lot of old things, just being able to execute pitches."
Between that win over the Twins and his dismantling of the high-powered Cleveland offense, Lackey has yielded three hits in 13 innings while striking out 13. That sparkling ERA is now lower than that of presumed staff leader Jon Lester, and Lackey has allowed only three earned runs in 20 innings at Fenway Park this year. The big righty has 40 strikeouts against 11 walks in 39 2/3 innings, good enough for the best strikeout rate (9.1 per nine innings) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.64) of his career to this point. Most other stats are in line with the norms he established in his eight years as a stalwart of the rotation in Anaheim.
While each of those numbers is important in its own way, it still goes back to the attitude and positive vibe emanating from Lackey during his starts. He is working quickly, pounding the zone and not holding back any emotion whenever he gets a big out, whereas in past years that emotion would be notable when he failed to do so. Most importantly, he is working without a care for what occurred in 2011 and 2012, and with no concern for the surgically repaired elbow or any other body part on his 34-year-old frame.
Lackey's defensive gem to start the sixth, which saw him break toward a bleeder to the right of the mound and go into a slide on his knees across the wet grass while throwing to first, was another testament to a guy who is focused on only the task at hand.
"He had some good intensity tonight throughout," Farrell said. "He gets a big strikeout to end the sixth inning; you could see the emotion. More than anything, that says that he's not thinking of anything that's taken place in the past, either performance-wise or injury-wise, and he's going out and competing at a high level right now."
The big strikeout Farrell alluded to came on a fastball he blew past Nick Swisher to strand a runner at second and preserve what was then just a 3-1 lead. Lackey, who got 11 outs on the ground, also finished his night with back-to-back K's in the seventh.
Lackey echoed his manager in stressing that he has no concerns about the elbow or his past performance in Boston. He also said the solid campaign comes as no surprise.
Apparently, his teammates are on board.
"Same old Lack," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "Just goes out there and pounds the zone. When he gets in a hitter's count, he's got great off-speed stuff he can throw for strike. He was great tonight. Everything was coming out crisp, downward angle, he kept them off balance all night."
Saltalamacchia made a point of also commending Lackey for his ability to get ready in a hurry. Heavy rain early in the evening put the game in doubt before officials hastily announced a 7:50 p.m. ET start.
Lackey raced to the field to warm up, took the mound moments later in a cold mist, and proceeded to blow away leadoff hitter Michael Bourn and No. 3 hitter Asdrubal Cabrera with heavy fastballs, part of a 1-2-3 first inning that set the tone.
Lackey insists his arm strength is still not where it needs to be. Same for his endurance. But he threw 109 pitches, his most in a game since Sept. 14, 2011. It was his longest career outing at Fenway Park without allowing an earned run. And he now has gone at least six innings in consecutive starts for the first time since August 2011.
If and when he gets to 100 percent, and if he maintains his effectiveness along the way, Lackey could be setting himself up for a pretty remarkable comeback campaign. Again, it would not come as a surprise to him.
"Had one bad year and needed surgery after it; it's not like I've never been good before," he said in a somewhat defiant tone when asked whether he still thought about his previous struggles in a Red Sox uniform.
Then he smiled, something we didn't see much from Lackey before this season.