MINNEAPOLIS -- Through his first three years in Boston, it would have been tough to classify John Lackey as anything other than a disappointment. The right-hander, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the team before the 2010 season, had a 4.40 ERA in his first season -- which ballooned to 6.01 in 2011 as he faltered during the Red Sox's late-season collapse -- and he missed all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery.
It's been difficult at times to tell whether Lackey's fourth season in Boston will be the one where he finally delivers a solid return on the Red Sox's significant investment. But in a year that's been all about resurgence for the Red Sox, Lackey has delivered some hints that he might be part of a turnaround.
One of those hints came on Sunday against the Minnesota Twins, as Lackey took a perfect game into the fifth inning and allowed just one hit through six innings. A three-hour rain delay truncated Lackey's outing to 84 pitches, but for the third time in five starts, the big right-hander allowed only one earned run.
If he can put together more outings like the one he had on Sunday, 2013 might finally be the year Lackey puts it all together for the Red Sox.
"I thought John was very crisp. He was powerful," manager John Farrell said. "I thought he threw some good cutters, particularly to their left-handed hitters to get down underneath their swings. (He was) consistent with the stuff he had two starts ago when he faced Minnesota, and really, the stuff he had (last Tuesday in) Tampa. He cruised through the first three, four innings with no men on base. Even when he did get in the one inning where the one guy gets on base, I thought he made a quality pitch. Overall, just a solid performance for him."
Lackey is now 2-4 for the season, but he lowered his ERA to 3.31 on Sunday. The Red Sox are 27-17 in part because of brilliant starts from Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, but for the $15.25 million they're paying Lackey this season, they expect him to be at least a solid No. 3 starter.
He has shown signs of that this season, striking out 32 batters in 32 2/3 innings. His average of 8.81 strikeouts per nine innings is currently the best mark of his career, and the only time he's had a rate over eight strikeouts per nine innings came in 2005, when he broke out at age 26 with a 14-5 season for the Angels.
Whether Lackey has the stuff to keep missing bats at age 34, and a year removed from Tommy John surgery, remains to be seen. But the right-hander was encouraged by the fact that he was able to be so effective on a day where he didn't feel great.
A modest 50 of Lackey's 84 pitches went for strikes, but he got nine ground-outs and managed not to walk anyone.
"I was getting ahead in the count. That was probably the biggest thing," Lackey said. "Honestly, I felt better the last couple times than I did today. I warmed up terrible today, but I found some location when the game started."
Lackey is under contract through next season, and the Red Sox have a $500,000 vesting option for 2015, which was reduced to the league minimum after Lackey's Tommy John surgery last season. If he can maintain some consistency, he could be a reliable pitcher for the Red Sox this year and next year, and a bargain in 2015.
"The record doesn't indicate how well he's pitched," Farrell said. "Now, some of that was self-induced two starts ago. But I think he's shown better power, better quality of repertoire, than the win-loss and ERA might indicate. Most importantly, he continues to come out of every start feeling great, physically. His work in between has been consistent, and there's no reason that type of performance shouldn't continue."