BOSTON – John Lackey does not think of himself as a pitcher still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Except for certain instances.
“Mostly, [the media] won’t let me forget about it,” he said after his win over the Indians Friday night. “I had one bad year and needed surgery afterwards. It’s not like I’ve never been good before.”
And, with the way he’s pitching so far this season, apparently it’s not like he won’t be good again.
Lackey went seven innings, giving up just one unearned run on two hits and three walks with eight strikeouts, as the Red Sox beat Cleveland, 8-1, at cold, damp Fenway Park. Lackey earned the win, improving to 3-4 as his ERA fell from 3.31 to 2.72.
“I feel like my arm strength is getting better, the endurance is getting better, things are going on the right track,” Lackey said.
“It’s been a lot of fun, for sure. It’s fun to get back in there with the guys, a great group of guys to compete with. Have success, and be healthy and just not fighting a whole lot of other things. Being able to execute pitches feeling pretty good.”
But while Lackey may no longer consider himself a pitcher trying to return after major surgery, not everyone looks at it that way.
"I don't think we're ever not worried about any pitcher,” said manager John Farrell. “The benefit that he had coming into this year was that spring training started 16 months post-op for him. So he was a little bit further along in the recovery than maybe the typical Tommy John [patient]. So the additional four months helps.
“But I think the surprising thing is the first year back we haven't seen the fluctuation in stuff. Velocity typically can fluctuate and that hasn't been the case with John."
Lackey gave up just one unearned run Friday, while matching a season-high seven innings pitched. It was his longest career outing without allowing an earned run at Fenway Park.
“He had velocity. He ended up throwing that cutter very effectively, kind of ran it in on our lefties,” said Indians manager Terry Francona, who was Lackey’s manager with the Sox in the right-hander’s first two seasons in Boston.
“As he got more successful with it, he started bringing it off the plate a little bit, opening up the rest of the plate.”
Lackey has allowed one or fewer earned runs in all three home starts this season, posting an ERA of 0.90, with two combined earned runs in 20 innings. With his last outing May 19 at Minnesota, this marks the first time since July 2 – 14, 2006, that he has pitched back-to-back outings without allowing an earned run.
“The one thing that he’s maintained is his stuff overall,” said Farrell. “And considering the surgery he’s come off of, I think it’s a testament to the work that he puts in in between starts.
“As far as execution, it’s been a high number of first-pitch strikes. He’s been ahead in the count; not just the last two starts but I think the majority of this year, and because of that he’s been able to go to some secondary pitches to finish hitters off.”
The lone run Lackey allowed Friday night came in the third innings, when Mark Reynolds led off with a single to left and Michael Brantley reached on an infield single. With two outs, Reynolds and Brantley each advanced on a stolen base, with Reynolds scoring on catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s error, attempting to throw Reynolds out at third.
“Same old Lack,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “He just goes out there, pounds the zone. When the hitters get in hitter's counts he’s got great off-speed stuff that he can throw for strikes. He looked great tonight. Everything was coming out crisp, downward angle, and just had them off-balance all night.
“It’s huge. It’s huge for everybody. It gives the bullpen a little bit of rest after a long night [Thursday] night and obviously it gets us motivated going into tomorrow.”