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Lackey looks to give Sox commanding 2-0 ALDS edge

Year removed from Tommy John surgery, righty dominating with fastball

BOSTON -- Everything that the eye tells us to believe about John Lackey is bold, maybe even a little chaotic.

His voice and arms will usually signal his frustration; his steaming fastball and thundering fist pumps display his satisfaction.

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The fastball is back, they kept saying. Opposing managers and befuddled hitters have marveled all season, just one removed from undergoing Tommy John surgery and two removed from his 6.41 ERA.

"He was throwing harder than he ever has," said Rockies outfielder and National League batting champ Michael Cuddyer after a June 26 game in which Lackey struck out a season-high 12 batters.

The fastball was back, and more prevalent than ever -- he's been throwing it almost 50 percent of the time. But it hasn't been faster. More viscous and unforgiving -- probably. Maybe it looks harder, but it's not faster.

Lackey's fastball has averaged about 92 mph this season. His fastball averaged 92 mph from 2007-11, according to Brooks Baseball.

The difference for Lackey, who will start Saturday in Game 2 of the American League Division Series on TBS at 5:30 p.m. ET against the Rays on, isn't the speed. It's the location.

When Lackey led the AL in ERA with a 3.01 in 2007, he had also posted the lowest walk rate of his career, walking just 2.1 batters per nine innings. When the righty struggled in his first two seasons in Boston, he posted walk rates of 3.0 and 3.2 per nine innings.

In 2013, as Lackey has lowered his ERA to 3.52, he's walked just 1.9 per nine innings while throwing 67 percent strikes, a career high.

"Everything is about fastball command to me," said Rays' manager Joe Maddon, who was the Angels' bench coach for Lackey's first four big league seasons. "When your pitchers have that, then everything kind of works off of that."

With all the attention on his fastball, Lackey has subtly fine-tuned his slider so well that it's picked up more than an inch of horizontal movement, now crossing the plate nearly four inches from where it started.

And hitters can't touch it.

They're swinging at 36 percent of the pitches Lackey throws outside the strike zone and making contact just 68 percent of the time, both career bests for Lackey.

"The biggest difference I see is, obviously, he was hurt," Maddon said. "I knew something was wrong when he wasn't pitching well. He was definitely better than that.

"Now you're seeing him at full force, where he's well, because he's got all the weapons, plus the makeup to be as good as you're seeing right now. So it does not surprise me in the least that he's well, pitching this good."

And when Lackey takes the mound Saturday looking to extend the Red Sox's lead over the Rays to 2-0, he'll be on 10 days of rest.

"I think that definitely could help me as far as rejuvenating me a little bit," Lackey said.

If this season's history is any indication, Lackey will throw a fastball every other pitch. He'll throw strikes. He'll get quick outs. And the attention will be on his outward displays of emotion.

Don't expect him to hold back.

"I'm going to be emotional," Lackey said. "I'm going to be fired up."

Meanwhile, his slider will dance through the strike zone; he'll be spotting sinkers.

It's a subtle focus, all hidden underneath the Lackey everybody sees on TV.

Jason Mastrodonato is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @jmastrodonato.

Boston Red Sox, John Lackey