John Lackey to start after Jon Lester
"The Opening Day thing is a big deal,'' Lackey said. "Jonny deserves that, absolutely. I think all of us would say that. But after that, we just fall in line and hopefully not drop the baton.''[+] EnlargeAP PhotoIn the No. 2 spot in the rotation, John Lackey is lined up to pitch the Red Sox's April 8 home opener against the Yankees.
Lackey wasn't aware, he said, that his slot in the rotation puts him on track to pitch the home opener April 8, although manager Terry Francona is virtually guaranteeing that one of the three games the team is scheduled to play in Cleveland after opening the season in Texas is destined to be washed out, by rain, snow, or whatever else passes for precipitation in Ohio this time of year.
"I didn't look that far ahead,'' Lackey said. "For sure, it's cool. Fenway is a special place, and to be the first guy to pitch there this year with a lot of high expectations around town, sure, it'll be a fun thing.''
Thursday morning, Francona announced the rest of his rotation behind Lester, who will pitch April 1 when the Red Sox open the season in Arlington, Texas, against the Texas Rangers.
Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Daisuke Matsuzaka will be Nos. 2-5 at the outset, Francona said. That news did not come as a surprise to any of them. Francona said he has known for some time that this is how he wanted to line them up, but did not go public with it in the event someone got hurt.
Even with an off day in Cleveland on April 4, Francona said he will not alter the order, which puts Lackey in line to pitch the home opener against the New York Yankees. The identity of the opponent was also an unknown to Lackey, or so he said. He just doesn't trifle with some details. His ancestry, for example. Last season, when he pitched on St. Patrick's Day, Lackey said he didn't know his bloodlines. "I'm Texan,'' he said.
Thursday, he admitted he'd posed the question to his mother in the interim. And? "I'm not Irish,'' he said. "Lots of English and, uh ... I don't know.''
So, we'll stick with Texan, one in whom Francona expressed great confidence.
"Lackey has a way of matching up against whoever he's pitching against,'' Francona said, "whether it's a No. 1 or No. 5, you look up in the seventh inning [and] you have a chance to win, which we really like.
"[Buchholz] did so good. I think we feel having Buck come out third just enhances our chance to win a little bit. Buck's numbers would say he could pitch anywhere. I just think Lack's a veteran, he's done it, spacing [Buchholz] and Lester out, there's something to be said for that, too.
"Lack showed up in great shape and looks ready to go. Ultimately, if they pitch like they should it's not going to matter, and if they don't pitch like they should, it's not going to matter.''
Francona said the start Beckett missed after sustaining a concussion when he was struck by a batted ball in batting practice did not factor into his being slotted fourth after pitching the opener the past two seasons.
"I just think just watching the way last year unfolded we want to get him off to a good start,'' he said. "We'll pitch him in that game in Cleveland. I think that's a good place for him to start.''
Beckett, who had pitched the past two Red Sox openers and was named to start the '08 opener in Japan until he hurt his back, endorsed Francona's decision to go with Lester.
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"Just like I would always feel like he would back me up,'' Beckett said, "I back him up on his decision, as well."
The Red Sox open the season in Texas with three games against the Rangers, then after an off day on April 4 play three games against the Indians before returning home to face the Yankees for a three-game weekend set.
Lackey's placement in the No. 2 slot may come as the biggest surprise, given his 4.40 ERA and 1.42 WHIP last season -- the highest those numbers have been since 2004 -- plus a walk rate (3.0 per nine) that was his highest since '04 and a strikeout rate (6.5) that was his lowest since '04. But Francona said the organization took a much more positive view of his 2010 season than his critics.
"I know Lack took a little bit of heat for underperforming,'' Francona said. "I don't think we felt like that. I think he just seemed like that guy last year, he gave up his runs late or somebody gave up his runs late or he made a mistake late. I just think he's going to give you 200 innings and every time he pitches you're going to have a chance to win. That's kind of how we feel, regardless of who he matches up against.''
Lackey was 14-11 last season. The team had a 16-17 record in his 33 starts, but in 10 of those losses the Red Sox lost by two runs or fewer. Conversely, seven of his wins came in games decided by two runs or fewer. Lackey also pitched better in the second half (3.97 ERA compared to 4.78 in the first half) and had a strong September, one in which he held opposing hitters to a .221 average while striking out 35 and walking just 8.
"I think he's worked hard to get in real good shape, and I think it's going to show," Francona said. "I think across the board his numbers will be a little lower this year. ... He's very accountable. He does his job. He doesn't care who he's pitching to, who he's pitching against, he just takes the ball and stays out there until you take it away."
Catcher Jason Varitek adopted a similar line in his assessment of Lackey's performance last season.
"The man goes out there and competes, day in and day out,'' Varitek said. "People took a lot of shots at him, but he was so valuable to our team. Even though he may not have had the best numbers in the world, we relied on that guy. He might have given up a couple of runs early, but he's going to fight, scratch, claw, the next thing you know he's out there through seven.''
The Red Sox were not happy with the shape in which Lackey reported last season, and believe it contributed to his slow start. He came into camp this spring, he said, weighing around 15 pounds less than he did last season, and it showed.
Lackey admitted that his primary concern last spring was just to get through camp healthy, after beginning each of the previous two seasons on the disabled list. Thursday, after allowing a run on five hits in 5 1/3 innings, walking one and striking out two while throwing 78 pitches, he said he believed his velocity and arm strength were better than they were a year ago at this time. That has allowed him to throw his four-seam fastball more compared to last spring, when he said he relied on his sinker to get groundball outs.
"I'm definitely further ahead at this point than last year,'' he said. "We'll see what happens.''
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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