10/13/2002 01:03 am ET
Angels never doubted Lackey
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Before he threw his first pitch Saturday, it was clear John Lackey was headed for a big performance in the biggest start of his life.
At least so said Angels catcher Bengie Molina, who would receive every pitch Lackey threw in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
"I can always tell in the bullpen before the game how a pitcher's going to be that night, and he was on with every one of his pitches," Molina said. "I knew he had it tonight."
It turned out the tall rookie from Texas was on with every one of his 79 pitches in a masterful seven shutout innings that belied his 23 years of age -- and more important sent the Angels on their way to a 7-1 victory over the Twins that puts them one victory from the World Series.
"That was just one of those games where I felt good from the start," Lackey said.
That much was obvious. Lackey locked horns with Twins ace Brad Radke and outlasted him, allowing just three hits while striking out seven. In fact, Lackey's outing just may have been the best starting performance of the series.
"Brad Radke pitched an incredible game tonight. John Lackey matched him pitch for pitch," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "For a youngster who was in the minor leagues three and a half months ago to come up and do that is incredible."
But, really, the Angels never had a doubt. That's how high they are on the 6-foot-6 right-hander.
"John wouldn't have been out there if we didn't have a lot of confidence in him," Scioscia said.
Indeed, Scioscia kept showing his confidence in Lackey by stating time and time again this week he'd have the rookie pitching in Game 4, not veteran Kevin Appier on three days' rest.
Molina says he had confidence in Lackey well before the Angels even knew they'd be in this position.
"Ever since he got up here, I have known he's capable of doing what he did today," Molina said. "I was always high on him. He's just got great stuff."
Lackey, who was promoted to the big leagues on June 25 and made his first start the next day, earned such confidence by posting a 9-4 record and a 3.66 ERA in the first 18 starts in the Majors.
And he earned a new level of confidence in his postseason debut, even though it wasn't in a starting role.
Lackey came in and threw three shutout innings after Ramon Ortiz's start blew up in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Yankees. Lackey's outing allowed the Angels to make a stirring comeback in that pivotal game.
Seven days had passed since that one, but Lackey found that time to be a positive.
"I think the layoff from my last game to tonight actually helped me," Lackey said. "I felt really strong going in."
Lackey looked it, running through a 1-2-3 first inning and striking out Corey Koskie to finish off the frame. He allowed only three singles all night.
He gave up two of them in the third inning without getting a runner into scoring position, thanks to a fielder's choice grounder and a busted hit-and-run by the Twins. He gave up one more to David Ortiz with two outs in the seventh, but that was after he'd retired 12 Twins in a row.
"As the game went along you'd think you would see him a couple of times and get a little better, but he was tough," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The kid was very, very tough on us. He made some great pitches and we had a hard time with him."
Much like 20-year-old Angels relief sensation Francisco Rodriguez, who pitched a scoreless eighth to give him 9 1/3 shutout innings in the postseason, Lackey doesn't carry himself on the mound like a rookie.
Yet he knows he is.
"There are definitely some trials you've got to go through as a rookie," Lackey said. "I was tested at times, and I think I've grown up since I was called up. It's still my first year, so I guess I'm still a rookie."
Maybe so. He just doesn't seem to look, act or pitch like it. He exudes composure.
Angels pitching coach Bud Black says that's something both Lackey and Rodriguez have within them, and always have.
"You're talking about two kids who obviously are very talented but who also have a great ability to focus on what they're trying to do out there," Black said. "These guys had it when they were very young, I'm sure -- in Little League or youth ball. If you have composure, you have it."
Lackey clearly has it.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.