There was something that John Lackey wanted to say, and a previous version of the Sox pitcher would have most likely said it.
But this is the new Lackey. At least that’s what everyone’s banking on.
Last night was the latest and perhaps greatest show on the John Lackey Redemption Tour. The big (although not as big anymore) righty went eight innings, allowed only one run and struck out six Padres in Boston’s 4-1 win. Dating back to May 19, Lackey’s now 5-1 with a 2.30 ERA over his last nine starts. Over his last four starts? He’s 3-0 with a 2.17 ERA. He’s pitched at least seven innings on each occasion and has struck out 27 batters, while walking only three. With Clay Buchholz still on the mend and Jon Lester still searching for answers, Lackey has emerged as Boston’s most reliable starter and one of the major reasons why the Sox currently and surprisingly sit atop the American League standings.
How did this happen? The team chalks it up to health.
“I'm healthy,’’ Lackey said last night. “I've been locating the ball pretty good, but it has happened before, you know.”
“He’s been a good pitcher for a long time,” Jarrod Saltalamacchia added. “It’s just a matter of being healthy, having a feel, having the velocity back.”
Still, Lackey’s turn is a little hard to believe. Obviously, his first three seasons in Boston couldn’t have gone much worse, on or off the field. As a result, at the start of this season, he was just about the most hated athlete in town. Even if the Sox could have used Lackey’s presence in the rotation, most fans didn’t think it was worth it. He represented all that was wrong with this franchise. He was the lone bad apple still lingering from a time that everyone was ready to forget.
But over the last few months, Lackey’s done his best to erase that bad taste, and even his biggest detractors have been forced to tip their hat.
“The fans gave you a nice hand tonight,” a reporter told Lackey after last night’s game, “to what degree do you think you’ve won them back, and if you have, how satisfying is that to you?”
The easy answer was for Lackey to just say: “Oh yeah. It’s great. These are awesome fans and I’m just happy to be a part of what’s going on here.” Even if he didn’t mean it, it would’ve been a safe response, and a chance to continue to build upon his new-found good will.
But that’s not what happened. When the question was finished, Lackey paused (click ahead to the 1:00 mark of this video), slapped his hand to the side of his head, and slowly dragged it down, like he was trying to push the truth out of his brain. After that, a smirk came over his face, and his tongue started twitching somewhat nervously inside of his mouth. He then stopped, gathered himself with about three seconds of total silence, and was finally ready to speak:
“Uhh . . . I . . . I don’t know. I’m going out and pitch well and I think that’s all they want to see, I guess. So hopefully, you know, that’s enough . . . but I mean . . . having to win the fans back to begin with is another . . . whatever.”
And that brings us back to the beginning of the story. The old John Lackey vs. the new John Lackey. Something that he wanted to say vs. something that he knew he shouldn’t.
The relationship between Lackey and the fans of Boston will always be a complicated one. No matter how well he pitches, the two sides may never be able to connect on a level that this city typically does with its sports stars. These days, it basically just a working relationship. No more, no less. And as Lackey fought off the urge to say whatever he wanted to say last night, there was one sentence that pretty much said it all: “I’m going out and pitch well and I think that’s all they want to see, I guess.”
For better or worse, he’s right. Truth is, this isn’t about making amends for the past, because it will take much, much more than a few wins and a few standing ovations for either side to get there.
For Lackey, it’s about pitching well; if not for the fans, then for himself and his teammates.
For the fans, it’s about enjoying the John Lackey Redemption Tour; if not for who he is then for what it is, and for how integral it’s been during this continually remarkable first three months of baseball.