Saturday, September 21, 2013

Lackey Leads the Way

For the first time since 2009, the Boston Red Sox are headed back to the playoffs.

After dropping a pair of close games with Baltimore, the Red Sox avoided the sweep by beating the Orioles 3-1 Thursday night. John Lackey went the distance for Boston, yielding just two hits in what was easily his finest performance of the season (highlighted by 6 and 1/3 innings of no-hit ball). Adam Jones took him deep in the top of the seventh, but Lackey bore down to retire Nick Markakis and Danny Valencia, escaping the innings without allowing further damage.

It was fitting that Lackey, whose improbable/remarkable/where-did-that-come-from? turnaround has mirrored that of his team, was the one who pitched Boston into the postseason. Lackey caught a lot of flak (much of it deserved) during his first three seasons with the Sox, whose decline coincided with their signing him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. Lackey's historically awful 2011 season contributed to the team missing the playoffs by one game that year, made worse by his role as one of the now infamous fried chicken and beer pitchers (Jon Lester and Josh Beckett were the others). His poor performance, negative attitude, questionable work ethic and high price tag made him the team's most despicable player, not to mention the poster boy for everything that had gone wrong with the Red Sox.

This year has been different. He's symbolized everything that's gone right for the Sox. After missing all of 2012 to recover from Tommy John Surgery, Lackey reported to spring training noticably trimmer.  Nobody expected much from him, but the new-look Lackey has responded with his best season in years. While Clay Buchholz missed three months and Lester, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster have all battled bouts of inconsistency, Lackey's been the team's most reliable starter all season long. He's been a rock, and his resurgence has been instrumental to Boston's success. He may not be the most likable guy, but at least he's helping the team win (and earning his keep, too).

As well as Lackey's pitched this year, he hasn't received much run support from his teammates. That wasn't the case on Thursday, as the Red Sox scored three runs in the second to give him a nice early cushion. Stephen Drew smacked a two-run homer that just barely cleared the Green Monster, and two batters later Dustin Pedroia drove home Jackie Bradley Jr. with an opposite field single. Orioles starter Chris Tillman did his best to keep Baltimore in the game but was unable to match Lackey's brilliance.

The O's will try to bounce back in Tampa Bay this weekend as the Red Sox host the last place Toronto Blue Jays for their final home series of the regular season.

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