EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 16, 2013

Lackey does the unthinkable, outduels Verlander

Righthander outduels Verlander, Sox take 2-1 lead

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — One main reason the Boston Red Sox signed John Lackey to a 5-year, $82.5-million contact before the 2010 season was his reputation as a big-game pitcher. Whether you love him or hate him, he doesn’t fear the big stage. He relishes it.

His task yesterday appeared overwhelming to us outsiders, but not to him.

Everyone in New England, Michigan and the entire baseball world knew what the righty had to do, but could he do it?

Lackey needed to pitch out of his mind and outduel Detroit ace Justin Verlander, the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP who had thrown 27.0 straight scoreless innings with 43 strikeouts over his past four starts.

Lackey did just that, delivering an historic performance in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. He became only the third Red Sox starting pitcher in franchise history to win a 1-0 postseason game.

With their 1-0 victory over the Tigers in Game 3 at Comerica Park, Lackey and the Red Sox took a 2-1 best-of-seven series lead. Boston and Detroit play Game 4 today at 8 p.m. at Comerica.

Lackey joined Babe Ruth, who won 1-0 over the Cubs in Game 1 of the 1918 World Series, and Bruce Hurst, who won 1-0 against the Mets in Game 1 of the 1986 World Series.

The right-hander — who had missed last season recovering from Tommy John surgery and who often has been criticized during his four-year tenure with Boston — hurled 6.2 scoreless innings, allowing just four hits while walking nobody and striking out eight batters.

Meanwhile, Mike Napoli’s solo homer (estimated at 402 feet) off Verlander with one out in the seventh inning accounted for the game’s lone run.

Calling Lackey a big-game pitcher is not hyperbole but reality. He has a 3.11 ERA in 16 postseason outings, including 14 starts. His resume includes being the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series with the Angels as a rookie.

“Whether it’s April 5 or Oct. 5, you’re going to get the same John Lackey and get the same intensity and same mindset,” Red Sox starter Jon Lester recently told The Eagle-Tribune. “I’m just glad that he signed over here to have another opportunity to win another World Series.”

Until this fall, Red Sox fans had not seen the bulldog/playoff Lackey. Part of that, was Lackey’s fault.

Lackey pitched horrendous during his first two years with Boston and his involvement in the clubhouse beer-and-fried chicken fiasco during the 2011 September collapse worsened his reputation.

But whether you love him or hate him, you have to respect what Lackey did yesterday. He delivered a shiny gem in a game that so many gave him no chance to win.

John Farrell told reporters in Detroit before Game 3: “We know we’re getting premium stuff thrown at us (by Verlander), and the consistency to the execution will be the key again today.”

Translation: the Red Sox had to play flawless baseball to beat Verlander. And behind a tremendous effort from Lackey, they did just that.

How good was Lackey? A quick examination of the fifth inning tells the whole story.

Detroit had Jhonny Peralta at third base with one out during the fifth of a scoreless game. A sac fly by Omar Infante would have given Detroit a 1-0 lead. With Verlander pitching, that almost feels insurmountable.

But Lackey fanned Infante, who struck out just 44 times in 476 plate appearances during this regular season. He then got Andy Dirks, the No. 9 hitter, to ground out to Dustin Pedroia to end the inning.

The momentum Boston’s offense had from its tremendous Game 2 comeback was quickly squashed when Verlander struck out eight Red Sox over his first 4.2 hitless innings.

Detroit’s starting pitching has been tremendous in this series. The Sox only had one hit in Game 1 after 6.0 hitless frames from Anibal Sanchez. Max Scherzer then dazzled in Game 2, keeping Sox batters hitless until the bottom of the sixth.

Verlander held Boston hitless until the top of the fifth yesterday until Jonny Gomes reached on an infield single.

All that said, the Red Sox pitching — bullpen included — deserves a ton of praise. With the exception of Clay Buchholz in Game 2, have been nearly as brilliant as Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander.

Yes, Detroit starters have limited the mighty Boston offense to just two runs in three games, but the Red Sox lead the series 2-1.

That says a great deal about Boston’s resilience. And about John Lackey’s big-game prowess.

Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB