McAdam: At long last, Lackey winning over fans

McAdam: At long last, Lackey winning over fans
July 3, 2013, 10:15 am
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BOSTON -- As a fly ball twisted toward the right field line and Shane Victorino positioned himself to catch it for the final out in the eighth inning, John Lackey trudged off the mound, headed for the dugout, his work finished for the night.
     
Like Lackey, the sellout crowd at Fenway had already begun anticipating the out and began applauding. As Lackey reached the dirt in foul territory, they shifted their applause for the final out of the inning and directed it toward the exiting pitcher.
     
At the same time, the first notes of "Sweet Caroline," the Fenway staple, aired in the middle of the eighth, quickly directing attention from what was going on on the field.
     
But there was no denying the sight. Fans behind the home dugout rose and saluted Lackey for a job well done.
     
Two years ago, such a scenario would have been unthinkable. As Lackey was in the middle of what is, statistically speaking, the worst season ever for a Red Sox starting pitcher (12-12, 6.41 ERA) his every presence was roundly booed: walking to the bullpen to warm up before a game; taking the mound; and leaving it, often in the middle of an inning, the bases occupied and the damage reflected on the scoreboard.
     
It didn't help that, later that season, Lackey was involved in the team's chicken-and-beer misadventures, making him, to many, the face of the team's late-season fold and poster child for the franchise's sense of entitlement.
     
Of course, what few of the fans knew at the time was that Lackey had no business pitching that season. The ligament in his elbow was torn and would require Tommy John surgery that perform. He had no business taking the ball every fifth day, but insisted on doing so anyway.
     
And when Lackey missed all of 2012 recovering from the surgery, the fans most assuredly did not miss him.
     
All of which made the sights and sounds Tuesday night all the more incredible: Some 20 months after he had become one of the most widely derided Red Sox players in modern history, he won them over.
     
And why not? The 4-1 win over the San Diego Padres, while improving Lackey's record to a modest 6-5, was his 10th quality start of the season and lowered his season ERA to 2.81.
     
It marked his fourth straight start with seven or more innings pitched and two earned runs or fewer allowed.
     
The fans have noticed and embraced Lackey.
     
"It's certainly an improvement (over 2011)," said John Farrell. "I think as he would probably admit, it's a work in progress. He recognized some things had to change. It all started with his performance on the mound; it's been very good.
     
"The self-commitment he's made about re-shaping himself, we've talked repeatedly about. All this is based on the work that John has put in and it's great to see it taking place."
     
Lackey was reluctant to acknowledge the turnaround in the reception given him by the fans.
     
When asked about his ability to win back the fans and how satisfying that was to him, Lackey paused for several seconds before offering a measured response.
     
"I don't know . . . I'm going out and pitching and pitching well,"  he said. "I think that's all they want to see, I guess. So hopefully, that's enough. But . . . I mean, winning the fans back is another . . . whatever."
     
There was something in Lackey's answer that suggested he didn't want to say too much, that perhaps the boos from 2011 were still ringing in his ears.
     
This was never about any sort of public redemption for Lackey, who plays for his teammates, first and foremost.
     
"It's real nice," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the fans' support. "But when the fans were on him, media was on him, it didn't change our opinion of him. It didn't change his approach. He was still going to go out there and being a competitor.
     
"He's by far the best teammate I ever had -- just a guy that cares about everybody and he's always in a good mood, no matter what's going on personally or on the field. Can't ask for a better guy than that."
     
Externally, perhaps the fans are merely saluting the pitcher who has been the Red Sox' best starter for more than the last month. While Clay Buchholz rehabs and Jon Lester struggles, Lackey has become the staff's most dependable starting pitcher.
     
He's healthy again, which is key.
     
"It's fun to let it loose," he said, "and not feeling anything."
     
And there is the hint that the best is still to come. Historically, Lackey has been a better second-half pitcher and Tuesday night, he was asked if his arm strength -- which produced more fastballs at 95 mph and more swings and misses than he's seen in a long time -- was now all the way fully recovered.
     
"Honestly," said Lackey, the hint of a smile on his face and a gleam in his eye, "maybe not quite."