Commentary

John Lackey takes ire out on Angels

Updated: April 25, 2011, 12:22 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- John Lackey becomes a different pitcher when:

A) He's pitching against a team from the AL West

B) He's pitching against his former team, the Los Angeles Angels, who also qualify for A.

C) He's pitching when he feels disrespected.

D) He's pitching in a rotation in which, right now, anything less than lights out is tantamount to treason.

The answer, of course, is E, all of the above, because generally that's always the answer in stories that begin with a multiple-choice question.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJohn Lackey has been a big improvement in his last two starts, allowing one run over 14 innings.

But let's start with C, since the most obvious dividing line to draw between Lackey's first two starts this season (17 H, 15 ER, 8 2/3 IP) and his past two (10 H, 1 ER, 14 IP) was Terry Francona's decision to skip Lackey's start after a rainout at Fenway on April 13.

Francona said then, and maintains now, that the decision to skip Lackey had nothing to do with the way he was throwing, but was just a way to minimize the disruption to the rest of the rotation. Feel free to surmise that Lackey didn't see it that way.

Actually, you don't have to surmise anything. Lackey will come right out and tell you. He mentioned it after holding Oakland to a run on four hits in six innings on Tuesday. And when asked about it Sunday, he didn't hesitate to share his feelings.

"P---ed me off, yeah,'' he said.

It's not as though Lackey has been walking around with a scowl on his face ever since Francona broke the news to him. But since then, he has pitched like a guy who would rather be lashed to a hill overrun with fire ants than to ever be skipped again. It might not come out of the Zig Ziglar school of motivational techniques, but it seems to be working for Lackey.

"What do you think?'' he said, more as challenge than question, when asked if the move indeed motivated him. "What does it look like?''

To be honest, like a Daisuke Matsuzaka before-and-after, the Japanese right-hander joining Lackey as the Sox pitchers most likely to have changed into his uniform in a phone booth (do they still have those?) in the past week. Matsuzaka hasn't given up a run since he thought his next start might be his last, or so he says. Lackey has given up one since being skipped.

Peer pressure, Lackey acknowledged, has also played a part in him hewing a different course in his past two starts. No Sox starter has allowed more than two earned runs in the past nine games. Four times it has been one run. Four times it has been none (Matsuzaka twice, Jon Lester and Lackey).

The starters are 6-1 with an 0.88 ERA (six earned runs, 61 1/3 innings) in that stretch. In the four games here, the Angels never led. The back-to-back shutouts (with the help of the bullpen -- Daniel Bard on Saturday, Dan Wheeler on Sunday) were the first by the Sox since June 19-20, 2007 against the Braves.

"For sure,'' Lackey said, employing his favorite expression, "there's definitely a sense of not wanting to be the one who stops the streak.''

But contrary to the early returns across the board, no one should be surprised, he said.

"It's a pretty good run,'' he said, "but heck, we've got some guys with pretty good track records.''

Lackey's own track record is at its most impressive when measured against the AL West, the division in which he made his living for the first eight seasons of his big-league career. Take the Texas Rangers out of the mix; the Rangers, who battered Lackey for nine runs in 3 2/3 innings in his first start, play in a launching pad and have a profile more suited for the AL East. But against the other three teams in the division -- the Angels, Mariners and Athletics -- Lackey is 34-15 with a 3.18 ERA.

Against everybody else, it's 84-69 with a 4.15 ERA, almost a full run higher.

The Angels have blended nicely into that equation. Lackey has now faced his former team four times and has come away with a win each time while posting an ERA of 2.76. Lackey has hinted before that the disrespect factor is in play here as well, since the Angels hardly overextended themselves when the Red Sox spirited him away with a five-year, $82.5 million offer.

"It's nice, for sure,'' Lackey said of beating his former team. "You're competing against some guys you know, but really, when you look at their lineup today, there are not too many guys I really played with over there for any extended period of time.''

Since Lackey has been sleeping with the enemy, however, the Angels have been helpless against the Red Sox. They lost nine of 10 meetings last season, 13 out of 14 counting this weekend's sweep, and have lost seven straight in Angel Stadium. The last time the Sox swept had a four-game series in Anaheim, Jimmy Carter was president and Lackey was a Texas toddler still shy of his second birthday. That was 1980.

The Angels are going so bad against Boston, manager Mike Scioscia put Alberto Callaspo in the cleanup hole for the first time in his career Sunday. Reward, evidently, for Callaspo getting the game's only hit off Matsuzaka the night before.

It didn't help. All six of the Angels' hits Sunday were singles, and only one runner advanced as far as third. That actually represented progress. The Angels got no farther than second base on Saturday.

"They came out swinging, for sure,'' Lackey said. "Obviously, a lot of those guys know me and know I throw strikes. They were looking to get some hits early and some balls were hit pretty hard to the outfield for outs. But then I kind of got in rhythm."

And that's all it took. And looky here: Lackey's next two starts are scheduled to be against AL West teams, the Mariners and Angels, both in Fenway Park.

Good times. By then, who knows? The team that started 0-6 and 2-10 may be over .500 by then. They're just one game below (10-11) headed into Baltimore. The Red Sox should hope Charm City does nothing to alter Lackey's disposition.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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