True to his word

Lackey not afraid to speak his mind

John Lackey has big-game experience, but his last playoff win was in 2002. John Lackey has big-game experience, but his last playoff win was in 2002. (Chris Carlson/Associated Press
By John Powers
Globe Staff / October 8, 2009

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Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders both have better records. John Lackey has two wins since Sept. 10 and was knocked around for 10 hits and six runs by Oakland two starts ago. But there was little doubt who’d be getting the ball when the Angels take on the Red Sox tomorrow to open the Division Series in Anaheim, Calif.

“John’s been a front-end guy for a long time for what we feel is a championship-caliber team,’’ says manager Mike Scioscia, who tapped his big righthander for the playoff opener for the third straight year. “That says a lot.’’

Lackey, who at 30 is the oldest pitcher in the Angels’ rotation, is the man who earned them their only championship in franchise history in 2002, blinding the Giants in a 4-1 victory and becoming the first rookie to win the seventh game of a World Series since Pittsburgh’s Babe Adams in 1909. Since then, he’s made six starts in four series across three years, the last two against Boston.

“He’s done it, he’s been there,’’ testifies Los Angeles captain Torii Hunter, who watched Lackey tear out his club’s heart when he was with the Twins. “He’s pitched in the playoffs and the World Series. He understands what it takes to get there. I know he does because he beat us in the ALCS [in 2002].’’

The challenge for Lackey and his teammates is to get back to the ALCS after losing the last two Division Series to the Sox by a 6-1 aggregate. If the Angels want to end that string of Boston beatdowns, the turnaround needs to begin in Game 1, when Lackey will be up against lefthander Jon Lester for the third straight time in the playoffs. Last year, Lester outdueled him in the opener in Anaheim (4-1) and the fourth-game finale in the Fens (3-2).

The record shows that Lackey is 3-7 in his career against Boston and 0-2 in the playoffs, having given up 8 earned runs, 20 hits and 6 walks. “I’m sure you’ve got notes on this,’’ he told questioners after the Sox beat him last month. That outing, on Sept. 15, was a 4-1 loss that ended the Angels’ five-game regular-season winning streak on Yawkey Way.

What stung particularly was that the Sox won by playing small-ball - consecutive bunts by Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia in the sixth inning. Ellsbury’s dropped into what Scioscia called “a Bermuda triangle’’ between the pitcher and the first and second basemen, but Lackey didn’t want to hear it. “That’s an out, absolutely,’’ he said, after first baseman Kendry Morales let Ellsbury reach base and Alex Gonzalez advance to second. “All he has to do is throw to first. Let’s be serious.’’

After Lackey threw the ball away from his knees trying to get Gonzalez at third on Pedroia’s bunt, he readily pointed the finger at himself. “I had an easy play,’’ he acknowledged. “I just screwed it up.’’

Brutal truth traditionally has been Lackey’s style. “John has always spoken his mind,’’ says Scioscia. “When he thinks guys make great plays, he says it. When he thinks there are plays maybe a guy could make, he’s always voiced his opinion. Our guys understand. When John makes a bad pitch, he’ll be the first one to say it. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time when he doesn’t speak his mind.’’

Though his teammates may wince when they read Lackey’s comments, they don’t dispute his right to make them, given his standing and seniority. Lackey, Nolan Ryan, and Chuck Finley are the only pitchers in franchise history to win at least 10 games in seven consecutive seasons.

“He’s a veteran guy,’’ says Hunter. “If there’s somebody out there who’s not doing what he’s supposed to do, that’s his right. It’s just a little push. I don’t know if he should talk about it in the media. He can do it behind closed doors. But other than that, it’s his right.’’

What gives Lackey credibility is his history of taking the ball whenever his turn comes up and going deep into games. “John’s a bulldog, man,’’ says Hunter. “Once he gets going and he’s healthy and limber, he wants the ball every time. He can throw 150 pitches. You don’t see anybody doing that anymore. That’s an old-school guy I love.’’

Once he got off the disabled list in mid-May after being sidelined for six weeks with a strained forearm, Lackey shouldered his usual workload. Excluding his first start, from which he was ejected after just two pitches, and his last start, a two-inning tuneup, he went seven or more innings in 17 of his 25 outings. “It’s definitely something I take pride in for sure,’’ he says. “One of my main goals for every start is to outlast the other guy.’’

The likelihood of getting two quality starts from him in a short series is one reason Scioscia chose Lackey for the opener. “He’s given us a chance to win about every time he’s pitched,’’ he says. Another is Lackey’s big-game temperament. “I don’t think he’s ever going to be intimidated by a situation,’’ the skipper says. “I don’t think he’s ever going to back away from a challenge.’’

No game was bigger than the World Series finale seven years ago when Lackey, who’d been called up from Triple A Salt Lake City in June, got the starting nod on three days’ rest after his teammates had erased a five-run deficit in Game 6 to stay alive. “If you want to be somebody in this league, you’ve got to step up,’’ Lackey said after learning the news. “It’s time to step up.’’

Lackey gave the Angels five solid innings, conceding just one run on four hits, then watched three relievers finish off the Giants and Barry Bonds to produce the club’s first title in its 42 years. For the last several seasons, he has been the Angels’ go-to guy in October.

“I’ve pretty much seen what can get thrown at you,’’ Lackey says. “I’ve pitched several times in the playoffs, at all three levels. I’ve pitched in Game 7. It definitely gives you some confidence, but you’ve still got to execute pitches. But I pretty much know what’s coming, as far as the pregame stuff.’’

It’s the in-game stuff that has been the challenge for Lackey, who hasn’t won in the postseason since his Series victory. In the ALDS opener at Fenway two years ago, he gave up homers to Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz in a 4-0 loss. In last year’s opener in Anaheim, Lackey gave up a killer two-run shot to Jason Bay after striking him out twice and the Angels lost, 4-1. In the finale, with Lackey in the showers after seven innings, the Sox closed out the Angels, 3-2, scoring the winner off Scot Shields in the ninth.

The issue for Anaheim in the playoffs, more than pitching, has been its lack of offensive oomph. “We’ve got to find a way to score some runs against these guys, let’s be honest,’’ says Lackey. “We’re gonna face great pitchers.’’

If the Angels can’t beat either Lester or Josh Beckett in their own yard, they could be done before the leaves fall for the third straight year. Lackey has access to the same historical notes everyone else does and he’s fully aware of what his stats are against the Red Sox.

“You can make anything sound the way you want to make it sound,’’ he says. “We haven’t won. Nobody cares what my numbers are. I’m not here for my numbers. I’m here to win.’’

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