BOSTON -- John Lackey is in his fourth year with the Boston Red Sox, and he has never pitched for them in the postseason. That's a scenario no one in the Sox front office envisioned when Lackey was signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract on Dec. 15, 2009, two months after he and the Los Angeles Angels beat the Sox, 5-0, in the first game of what became a three-game sweep in the American League Division Series.
But that may all change this season, especially if Lackey can continue to command his fastball the way he has in recent starts, including Wednesday night's 3-2 loss to the Texas Rangers, in which 85 of his 108 pitches were fastballs, 60 for strikes.
One hanging slider hurt him, the one he said he overthrew to Adrian Beltre in the fourth inning that Beltre hit into the center-field seats for a home run, the only run allowed by Lackey in six innings.
Despite Lackey's contention that he was damaged goods in the two seasons he pitched for the Sox prior to undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, which sidelined him last season, it was not reflected in a loss of velocity. On Sept. 4, 2010, in a start against the Chicago White Sox, he touched 96 miles per hour. A year later, in a start in July, 2011, he again touched 96, and averaged 93 mph on his fastball.
Wednesday night against the Rangers, Lackey's fastball averaged 92.47 mph, according to brooksbaseball.net, and topped out at 94.97 mph. That's very close to his pre-surgery levels, and Lackey has been in that same vicinity now for his past few starts.
But the biggest improvement is with his command, especially the way he's keeping the ball down -- his ratio of ground balls to fly balls is better than 2-to-1, the best of his career. A loose arm freed from the elbow pain that preceded reconstruction is a big part of it, of course. But as manager John Farrell noted in spring training, it's also the striking improvement in Lackey's physical condition.
"I think a lot of that stems from the reshaping of his body," Farrell said this spring. "It's freed his body up. He's got better body control, he's more consistent in the outings he's pitched, and he repeats his delivery very well. When you consider that he's thrown pitches to both sides of the plate, that further emphasizes his body control and delivery being repeated."
Lackey is not pitching like your typical back-end-of-the-rotation starter, the kind you skip over when the schedule allows. He is pitching with power and purpose, he is giving the Sox meaningful innings and he is limiting the damage at an impressive rate (2.79 ERA that cracked has the league's top 10), even if his 3-5 record doesn't reflect it.
"I feel pretty good," he said Wednesday night, though the team's defeat clearly rankled him. "The fastball command was pretty good tonight. I'm pretty happy with it for the most part."
The velocity was there as well.
"Command's definitely more important," he said. "If you have a little more velocity, you're able to get away with a few more mistakes, so it's nice to have a little bit extra. I feel pretty good with it. A lot of hard work, [I've] come a long way."
It might even lead back to October, at this rate. Farrell didn't put it quite that way, but the implication was there. Asked if he saw Lackey's confidence in his stuff growing, Farrell said:
"He's a veteran guy with a lot of success and now that the competing with his own body is behind him, yeah, I see that growing each time he goes out there. And that's not to say he doesn't trust his stuff, but the fact [is] that he's got added velocity to his fastball with very consistent location. I think he walks to the mound each time knowing he's got an opportunity to work deep in a game with low runs allowed.
"And I felt even in the offseason this is one guy who had a chance to impact our team as much as anyone, and I still feel the same and maybe even more so today."