Red Sox hurler outduels Verlander to give Boston 2-1 ALCS advantage
DETROIT -- John Lackey earned a reputation earlier in his career of being a big-game pitcher, but despite a strong track record in the postseason he was considered an afterthought heading into Tuesday's Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
All of the pregame talk centered around the unenviable task of trying to figure out a way to beat Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander. Lackey was almost lost in the shuffle, but it didn't take long for that narrative to change.
Lackey put the focus back on Boston's pitching staff -- instead of its struggling offense -- by regaining some of his previous postseason glory with 6 2/3 flawless innings in a 1-0 win over the Tigers.
"I think if you poll any pitcher, a starting pitcher, they want that moment," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "They want the importance of every pitch to be on it, particularly this late in the season. They want that responsibility. John is no different and there was no margin for error. And you know what? He did a heck of a job."
Boston now has a 2-1 lead in its best-of-seven series against Detroit and it has Lackey to thank for getting the upper hand. Despite pitching on nine days' rest, Lackey looked as good as he had all season and the timing couldn't have been any better.
Lackey surrendered only four hits and didn't walk a single batter while matching his postseason record of eight strikeouts. There wasn't any room for mistakes, but it didn't seem to matter as Mike Napoli's solo homer in the top of the seventh was the only run Lackey needed.
The impressive pitching line didn't come without at least a couple of tense moments. There was a first-and-third situation in the first inning and a leadoff double in the fifth. But in both cases, Lackey was able to maneuver his way out of the inning without anyone crossing the plate.
"He kept us off-balance and had good command, but what he really did was when he fell behind in the count, he came back and made good pitches," Detroit's Victor Martinez said. "We had our chances, they had their chances, they had the long ball. That was the game."
The outing has a chance to become a defining moment in Lackey's career with the Red Sox. He signed a five-year contract prior to 2010, but suffered through a pair of disappointing seasons before missing the entire 2012 campaign with a right elbow injury.
Lackey's performance this year told a different story. He will at least be in the conversation for the Comeback Player of the Year Award after posting a 3.52 ERA in 29 starts. All of that success could have been undone with a poor outing against the Tigers, but instead the Texas native enjoyed what he referred to as his biggest game in a Boston uniform.
Lackey, 34, entered play on Tuesday with a career 3.35 ERA in 15 postseason games. There have been more than a few breakthrough performances in the playoffs, but nothing while in a Red Sox uniform will top what he did at Comerica Park.
"It was awesome, for sure," Lackey said. "I mean, I knew I was going to have to pitch pretty good today. [Verlander's] having a great career, great season, great postseason. The guys came through. [Napoli] took care of me once again. He's hit some dingers for me, and it was a big one today."
Lackey didn't get through his outing, though, without at least a little bit of controversy. With Martinez on first base and two outs in the seventh, Farrell decided that Lackey's night was done.
Farrell came out of the dugout to call upon left-hander Craig Breslow. Lackey looked incredulous on the mound and appeared to let Farrell know what he thought of the decision with a few choice words.
The moment drew comparisons to a similar outburst Lackey had in Game 5 of the 2009 ALCS against the Yankees as a member of the Angels. On the receiving end that time was Angels manager Mike Scioscia, but in this case, the move by Farrell proved to be a good one. Breslow got out of the inning and Boston's bullpen went on to throw another two scoreless frames to earn the win.
Even though Farrell was essentially called out on the field by one of his players, it wasn't something he was concerned with after the game. Everyone in the Major Leagues is aware of Lackey's demonstrative behavior and in Farrell's opinion there is a far worse reaction that could have taken place.
"Well, you can anticipate him not wanting to come out of the game," Farrell said. "And you know what? That's what makes John such the competitor that he is. I'd rather him come off arguing than come off with his head hanging. That means we're probably on the reverse side of the scoreboard.
"You never want a pitcher to come out of the game. If something is made of that, we don't want John to change who he is as a person, and certainly who he is as a competitor."