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Lackey makes long-awaited return to big stage

Veteran righty's coming-out party was as rookie in 2002 World Series

BOSTON -- John Lackey has been here before, though it's understandable if you forgot. It was Game 7 of the 2002 World Series when he last took the mound on this stage, giving up only one run in five innings to a San Francisco Giants offense featuring Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent and locking up the first World Series championship in Angels history.

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Lackey was a clean-shaven 24-year-old rookie then, not the scruffy 35-year-old who now seems to fit right in with this bearded bunch in Beantown. He was admittedly a two-pitch guy then, didn't have the scar that now resides on his right elbow and was so full of hope, before the expectations of a large contract and the humility of failure hardened him.

Asked what he can take away from that start heading into Game 2 of the 2013 World Series against the Cardinals at Fenway Park on Thursday night -- air time is 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX, with first pitch slated for 8:07 -- Lackey couldn't help but laugh.

"Not a whole lot," he said, one day before facing the 22-year-old Michael Wacha. "That I'm old, I guess."

More than a decade has passed since then, and Lackey is one of just two players from that game to suit up in the big leagues in 2013 (the other was Francisco Rodriguez ). Between World Series appearances, Lackey has carved out a career that took him from elite pitcher to flop to reborn, the latter two miraculously coming in the same high-pressure city.

All along, though, one trait was inherent.

Tale of the Tape: Game 2
Michael Wacha
John Lackey
Red Sox
2013 regular season
Overall: 15 G, 9 GS, 4-1, 2.78 ERA, 19 BB, 65 K Overall: 29 GS, 10-13, 3.52 ERA, 40 BB, 161 K
Key stat: At 22, Wacha became the youngest National League Championship Series MVP Award winner since a 21-year-old Steve Avery won it with the Braves in 1991. Key stat: The only two St. Louis batters Lackey has faced -- Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday -- are hitless against him in 16 combined at-bats with four strikeouts.
At Fenway Park
2013: n/a
Career: n/a
2013: 13 GS, 6-3, 2.47 ERA
Career: 57 GS, 26-20, 4.69 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: n/a
Career: n/a
2013: n/a
Career: n/a
Loves to face: n/a, n/a
Hates to face: n/a, n/a
Loves to face: Matt Holliday, 0-for-7, BB, K
Hates to face: Carlos Beltran, 0-for-9, RBI, 2 BB
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: Since his last regular-season start, in which he carried a no-hitter for 8 2/3 innings, Wacha is 4-0 with a 0.30 ERA, having allowed just one earned run and nine hits in his last 29 2/3 innings. Why he'll win: Though Lackey struggled on the road (4-10, 4.48 ERA), he fared much better from the comforts of Fenway Park, where he went 6-3 with a 2.47 ERA.
Pitcher beware: Wacha was considerably less effective on the road than at home this season (a .316 opponents' batting average compared with a .174 mark at Busch Stadium), and the Red Sox hit .285 at Fenway Park in the regular season. Pitcher beware: The Cardinals hit at a historic pace with runners in scoring position during the regular season, posting a .330 average, which is the best Major League mark on record and obliterated the previous high of .311 set by the 1996 Rockies and the 2007 Tigers.
Bottom line: Eighteen months ago, Wacha was a junior at Texas A&M; last week, he was named the MVP of the NLCS. Wacha is only 22, though his age and inexperience have yet to show this postseason, where he has allowed just one earned run in three starts (21 innings). Bottom line: Lackey will need to be at his best to outduel the Cardinals' rookie sensation, but experience is on his side as he's no stranger to pitching in October. The veteran righty has tossed 90 postseason innings, posting a 3.10 ERA in 16 career playoff appearances (14 starts).

"He's always had the ability to rise to the occasion," his former pitching coach with the Angels, Mike Butcher, said. "He's one of those guys that you want on the mound when the game is on the line. … He's a grinder, he's a battler, he's a fighter. He'll find a way to win, and I think that's what separates him from a lot of guys. I mean, he's that guy. He's the guy that you want on the mound when the game's on the line. He's going to figure it out."

Butcher last coached him four years ago, when Lackey wrapped up his eighth season. From 2002-09, he ranked 24th in the Majors in ERA (3.81), 12th in strikeouts (1,207), 15th in innings (1,501) and 15th in wins (102). During the playoffs that year, he posted a 2.29 ERA in three starts. And when he went into free agency that offseason, Lackey was far and away the best starting pitcher available, with the likes of Randy Wolf and Joel Pineiro and Jason Marquis a distant second.

On Dec. 16, 2009, the Red Sox locked Lackey up for $82.5 million over five years. He would join a rotation with Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, and together they'd form a powerhouse staff that would take Boston to the next level.

Four years later -- after a subpar 2010, a 6.41 ERA in 2011, Tommy John surgery recovery in 2012 and some outside-perception issues along the way -- Lackey is finally making good on his deal.

"I'm not really concerned about some of that outside stuff," Lackey said before taking the mound with a chance to give his team a 2-0 Series lead after Wednesday night's 8-1 win in Game 1. "I know who I was in the clubhouse and where I stood with the guys in the clubhouse. That means more to me than anything. You want to be on a good team. You want to try to help out the boys. You want to pull your weight. And that's been fun this year."

Lackey showed up to Spring Training in February 12 to 15 pounds lighter, completed a resurgent 2013 regular season -- 3.52 ERA with a career-best 1.16 WHIP and 4.03 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- and finally had his defining Red Sox moment in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series at Comerica Park last Tuesday, pitching 6 2/3 shutout innings and matching Justin Verlander pitch for pitch to get the win.

Asked if he ever doubted he could get back to pitching at an elite level, Lackey said: "Not [if] healthy, no."

"This is a veteran with a lot of success in the past, including postseason success," said Red Sox skipper John Farrell, who chose Lackey instead of an ailing Clay Buchholz for Game 2. "Given the challenges he's come through in the time he's been in Boston, we're glad he's not only come back from Tommy John, but regained the form he had pre-injury."

Lackey will be taking the ball on eight days' rest, but believes he's become a lot better at handling the long layoff between outings. He struggled on 10 days' rest in Game 2 of the AL Division Series, giving up four runs in 5 1/3 innings against the Rays, and quickly realized he just didn't throw enough in between.

Lackey, with a 4.24 ERA in 39 career regular-season starts on six or more days' rest, threw off the mound an extra time or two prior to facing a St. Louis team he's never seen.

"They're good," said Lackey, who had a 2.47 ERA in 91 innings at Fenway Park this season. "They're in the World Series. There's no bad teams left. They've got a really good offense. It's really deep. Really similar to an American League lineup, for sure."

Lackey may be in the World Series for the first time in 11 years, but don't expect him to soak in the moment or reflect or take it all in or any of that stuff.

"It's kind of a business day tomorrow," Lackey said.

Besides, this is what Lackey does. He is, as many would say, a big-game pitcher, with a 3.10 ERA in 90 career postseason innings. And though a lot has changed since Lackey last pitched on baseball's biggest stage in 2002, the label really hasn't.

"It is a big game," Lackey said. "There's no running from that. And it's something you've got to embrace. It's something you've got to enjoy."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.

Boston Red Sox, John Lackey