Mike Napoli has known John Lackey a long time. They played together in Anaheim from 2006-09, when Napoli caught him 61 times (for a 3.63 ERA). They are now on the Red Sox, and with Napoli now a first baseman, their interaction is a bit different.
But Napoli doesn’t forget what his old batterymate used to be, and what a healthy Lackey could mean to the Sox.
“It’s going to mean a lot,” Napoli said about a healthy, productive Lackey, “especially when he pitches like that. We’re going to need him. Hopefully he stays healthy. When he’s healthy, I’ve seen him do good things on the baseball field.”
Lackey on Sunday earned the win with six strong innings in a 6-1 victory over Houston at Fenway Park. It came against the Astros, but there was encouragement all around after Lackey’s first start since straining his biceps April 6 in his first start in Toronto.
Lackey threw 81 pitches, retired 13 consecutive batters from the second through fifth innings, and ended the sixth by getting out of a bases-loaded jam. He gave up one earned run on five hits, striking out four and walking two.
It was 614 days between wins.
If Boston’s fifth starter is performing this well throughout the remainder of the season, then you can start printing playoff tickets.
When Lackey missed the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery late in the 2011 season, nobody had any idea what he might look like a year later.
Then he had the biceps issue in Toronto, when he grabbed his arm after throwing a pitch and was in great pain. The injury didn’t prove to be as serious as it looked. An MRI revealed only inflammation.
Lackey acknowledged after Sunday’s outing that he still feels something in the biceps and that his arm strength isn’t quite there yet. That “something” probably needs to go away before we can declare Lackey a success story.
“I was probably hoping to get through five and keep moving forward,” he said. “So maybe a little extra than what most people expected, I guess. It feels good. It’s been a long time. It’s been a lot of hard work to get back to this point and hopefully we can keep it rolling forward.”
Lackey made one rehab start and one side session before the Sox deemed him ready to start Sunday’s game.
He acknowledged feeling anxious because, “I was just hoping that I didn’t feel anything in the arm. Just trying to get back in a groove of things. I’ll hopefully get four or five starts going here and get the arm strength back and get the feel back. It was definitely a good step in the process to keep moving forward.”
Lackey certainly had the benefit of pitching against Major League Baseball’s worst team. In the middle innings Lackey had success served to him on a silver platter because, “they were swinging pretty early in the counts. I guess second through fifth I got quite a few ground balls on first and second pitches. They definitely got pretty aggressive on me, so I was trying to locate the fastball most of the time. Guys made some nice plays on the infield for me and kind of got through those pretty quick.”
Lackey enjoyed getting out of the bases-loaded jam in the sixth.
“It was definitely a first big challenge in a long time,” he said. “To be able to get the strikeout and the ground ball to get out of there was a lot of fun, exciting.”
Lackey said he had no concerns with his reconstructed elbow, “but there’s still a little bit of something there, but I need to get out there and build the arm strength. I think that’s all there is to it. I missed two weeks without throwing. So, I need four or five starts to go out there and really get the feel and full arm strength back.”
Lackey said he was simply relieved to know that he’s making his next start. He says he’ll continue to do arm-strengthening exercises.
Manager John Farrell liked what he saw.
“One, it was good to see him on the mound to begin with,” he said. “And then two, just the way he went out and continued to pound the strike zone from the second through the sixth inning, just a very solid day for him.
“A healthy John Lackey and one who’s capable of a career that has been very good, he gives us a huge boost. Not in terms of just innings alone, the number of innings he can pitch, but the performance. When you look back to when he was healthy . . . I think we can all recognize the last couple years has been as much competing against his own body as it has been the opponent.
“He’s in a good place right now and there were no physical issues today. He came out of today fine. But he does give us a seasoned veteran and a very good pitcher in that spot in the rotation.”
A healthy, productive Lackey also protects the Sox in case they have issues with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, or Ryan Dempster down the road. If any of those pitchers go down, Lackey’s experience could help pick up the slack. At least that’s the hope, if he’s healthy.
Lackey has endured a lot of personal and professional strife in the last year and a half. He was the human dartboard for fan resentment against the Sox and was part of the chicken-and-beer gang people came to hate. He seems to have adjusted that image, coming off as much more humble and relaxed and self-deprecating.
He likely pitched with a bad elbow for at least two years and perhaps even longer, and his comeback from Tommy John surgery has earned him increased respect on the team.
Could Lackey return to his Anaheim form — the 23-year-old kid who won two games in the 2002 World Series, including Game 7, over the Giants? Well, maybe not. But Sunday was a good start. Even if it was against the Astros, Lackey has wanted the chance to start his climb back as a major league pitcher.
After Sunday, it appears Lackey will get that opportunity.