On Sept. 19, 2011, John Lackey took the mound against the Orioles for a meaningful start at Fenway Park. His teammates supported him with 11 runs over the first three innings, though that wasn't enough to feel comfortable with the big right-hander on the hill -- so Lackey was yanked after just 4.1 innings, having been charged with eight earned runs after yielding 11 hits and walking two more. When he left the mound the Red Sox were leading, 11-8, but Terry Francona didn't have enough faith in Lackey's chance of holding that lead to let him try and finish the fifth.
On Sept. 19, 2013, John Lackey took the mound against the Orioles for a meaningful start at Fenway Park. His teammates supported him with only three runs -- but this time that proved to be plenty. This time Lackey didn't allow a hit until the seventh inning, and so this time his manager faced a much different decision about how long Lackey deserved to be in the game. This time John Farrell chose to give the righty a chance to finish what he started, and Lackey did that, ultimately yielding only two hits in a 3-1 complete game triumph that clinched a playoff spot for the Red Sox.
Two years later, a similar opportunity couldn't have played out much differently for Lackey. Those who booed him then are chanting his name now, those who wished him gone are confidently awaiting his turn as part of Boston's playoff rotation, and those who questioned his influence are now being told by Jarrod Saltalamacchia that Lackey is "the greatest teammate" he's ever had, "bar none."
Starting with the health of his throwing elbow, there are many reasons for Lackey's total turnaround. But as visual evidence of why his performance has been better, consider these Brooksbaseball.net charts from the last two games he's pitched on Sept. 19:
You'll see that his approach is simplified, with far less variation in his pitches. And, even more importantly, you'll see that his command is much more consistent. Look at how much his slider/cutter moved horizontally in each of those outings. When the discrepancy from pitch to pitch is as dramatic as it was for Lackey in that 2011 outing, it makes it difficult to locate with precision. Look, too, at the velocity of his pitches Thursday night. But for a few exceptions his fastball was between 91 and 94 mph; his slider/cutter was between 84 and 87 mph. That says he wasn't overthrowing and he had enough staminda to repeat his delivery and remain steady throughout the game.
As a result, Saltalmacchia said afterward, “As far as fastball command, keeping the ball down in the zone throughout the game, yeah, that was probably his best game."
Two years to the day after what might've been one of his worst.
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