John Lackey shouldn't have had anything to prove on Wednesday night in Fenway Park.
If baseball fans in Boston and around the country just looked back through the archives, his toughness, fortitude and bulldog mentality would have always been atop any list of attributes when describing the big right-hander from Abilene, Texas.
Yet he did have something to prove.
After signing a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Boston Red Sox after the 2009 season, Lackey's reputation as a big-game pitcher followed him to Boston. As Alex Speier of WEEI pointed out in a great piece Wednesday, the 35-year-old pitcher competed on the biggest stage well, well before arriving in Boston and the baseball mecca of the American League.
In 2002, as a 24-year-old rookie, Lackey started and won Game 7 of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants. Although the footage of his start won't go down among the greatest performances in October history, the ability to limit the 2002 Giants, featuring a version of Barry Bonds as the greatest hitter in history, was more than impressive.
John Lackey arrived in the majors with a bulldog mentality, helping the Angels to an improbable title. Although he downplayed the accomplishment, and its bearing on the 2013 World Series, baseball fans shouldn't.
He recounted on Tuesday, per Speier:
I was a rookie. We had a pretty veteran team… Our bullpen was probably our main strength on that team. I was trying to get five or six innings and turn it over to those guys. My job was just basically not to screw it up. That was a long time ago, man. I don’t think that’s going to play much into [Game 6]. I think most of those guys in that game aren’t even playing anymore.
Lackey is right about one thing: Most of those guys are gone. Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent and Kenny Lofton were nowhere to be found in the St. Louis lineup. However, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina were there, attempting to knock him off the mound and back into the doghouse with Red Sox loyalists.
Years from now, baseball fans will remember the two biggest moments of Lackey's career. Baseball history now belongs to the Red Sox starter. Throughout the entire rich history of the game, Lackey is the only pitcher to start and win World Series clinchers for two different franchises.
Future fans likely won't be as informed about the middle of Lackey's career.
Use any negative and degrading adjective that you can think of and it likely was said about Lackey over the past few years in Boston. After inking an $80-plus million deal, Lackey flopped. From poor performances to playing a role in the undoing of Terry Francona's clubhouse to Tommy John surgery and a lost year, Lackey's bulldog reputation was buried so far under the narrative of his bust label that it looked to never return.
As the story of the 2013 Red Sox formed, John Lackey's return to past form became a side note. Sure, the Red Sox were winning, but it was about their chemistry, under-the-radar free-agent moves and new voice in the dugout.
The facts—189.1 IP, 2.8 WAR, 116 ERA+, 4.03 SO/BB—were overshadowed by the bigger picture in Fenway Park. Less than two years after a historic September collapse and one year removed from a last-place finish, the Red Sox were back.
When the 2013 World Series began, Lackey's Game 2 assignment meant one thing for most baseball writers and scribes: Barring injury or a drastic change in approach by John Farrell, Lackey would be on the mound for a pivotal Game 6 in Fenway Park.
If the series reached that stage, the Red Sox would turn to a pitcher once known as a bulldog to reclaim his reputation. If the game meant staving off elimination, fortitude would be imperative. If it meant, as we witnessed, a World Series ring, focus would be the key.
On Wednesday night, Lackey survived the first two innings despite St. Louis hitters peppering his pitches into the gloves of Red Sox fielders. Allowing 10 baserunners in less than seven innings won't be remembered as Lackey's most aesthetically pleasing start: 6.2 IP, 9 H, 1 BB, 1 ER, 5 K. But only one of those baserunners scored on the way to a 6-1 victory and World Series title, so it did the job on a grand stage.
Considering how good St. Louis' offense can be and how much they needed the game, Lackey's performance grades out even higher.
At one point, John Lackey would have been mentioned in an all-bulldog rotation with names like Andy Pettitte, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz. Due to a disastrous start in Boston, that reputation stopped preceding him. The ability that Lackey proved to have in 2002 needed to be shown to fans once again.
The 2013 World Series reminded baseball fans of what they already knew: John Lackey is one of game's best big-game pitchers.
Does John Lackey have anything left to prove in Boston?
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