09/30/08 10:30 PM ET
Bulldog Lackey to take bite out of Sox
Ace will pound hitters with heavy diet of fastballs, sinkers
By T.R. Sullivan / MLB.com
Pitching against the Rangers at Angel Stadium on Friday, Lackey gave up 10 runs over 2 2/3 innings in a 12-1 loss. It was the most runs he surrendered in a start and his shortest outing as a starter.
The big righty is hardly worried that he had that kind of a start going into the playoffs.
"I had a good bullpen session and I'm confident I'll be ready to go," Lackey said on Tuesday.
His teammates don't doubt his sincerity. They know who Lackey is and they know that his toughness and competitive will are among his best traits. It is not forgotten around here who was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.
"He ain't afraid," veteran teammate Darren Oliver said. "Everybody gets nervous and has butterflies. But he's not afraid."
That's one of the reasons why Lackey will be given the ball as the Angels' Game 1 starter when they open the American League Division Series against the Red Sox at Angel Stadium on Wednesday.
Big game. Big pitcher. No. 1 starter. That's what Lackey means to the Angels. This is the playoffs, not a tune-up game against a second-place team late in September after the division title has been clinched.
"It's definitely fun to be on a team that has had success, win 100 games, set a franchise record, but I don't look at the number system as starters," Lackey said. "I just happen to be going tomorrow. We've got several guys that are good enough and capable to do it. I just happened to get picked, I guess."
Lackey, who was 12-5 with a 3.75 ERA in 24 starts during the regular season, is right in that the Angels have other candidates to be the No. 1 starter in the playoffs. Joe Saunders was 17-7 with a 3.41 ERA and Ervin Santana was 16-7 with a 3.49 ERA. Both were All-Stars and both could have easily led off for the Angels. Santana would have even been pitching on his normal four days' rest if he was pitching Game 1 on Wednesday.
But the Angels' rotation for the playoffs just didn't "happen." Manager Mike Scioscia didn't pick his starters out of a hat. The Halos clinched the division title on Sept. 10 and pretty much knew long before that they would be in the playoffs.
Scioscia had plenty of chances to manipulate his rotation the way he wanted it going into the playoffs. He wanted Lackey.
"This is an important game for us to have a guy not only with John's stuff -- he's had a terrific year -- but his presence and makeup," Scioscia said. "If he's going to get beat tomorrow, it's going to be because the other team stepped up and ... and beat him. That's a mind-set you need for a guy who you want to be the lead dog in your rotation."
Lackey attacks hitters with both a fastball and a sinker, plus his best pitch is a hard slider that right-handers chase down and out of the strike zone. Occasionally, he'll be too aggressive rather than try to pitch around certain hitters, and he can get too emotional on the mound.
But it's the same emotional will to win that pushes him to the head of the Angels' rotation.
"I love his toughness and his competitiveness," said Rangers scout Mel Didier, who has been in the business for 54 years. "He has good stuff. He doesn't have great stuff, but he has a big heart and he goes after hitters, and he does it with a force. He's an overachiever and a competitor. He's not one of these guys who is going to quit or give up."
Lackey still has a challenge to meet when he faces the Red Sox on Wednesday night. He has beaten them twice this year but is still just 3-7 with a 5.57 ERA in 14 starts against the defending World Series champions. That includes a 4-0 loss to Boston in Game 1 of the ALDS last year.
David Ortiz, the Red Sox's power-hitting left-handed designated hitter, is 10-for-30 with two home runs and nine RBIs off Lackey, while Kevin Youkilis, a right-handed hitter, is 5-for-17 with two home runs. They also went deep off him in Game 1 of the playoffs last year.
But the guy who was really tough on Lackey was Manny Ramirez. He is 12-for-28 with five home runs, 12 RBIs and nine walks off Lackey in his career, but the slugger is no longer with the Red Sox. Lackey has never faced Jason Bay.
"[They've had a] couple of personnel changes a little bit, but [they] still [are] a formidable offense," Lackey said. "They have guys that can swing the bats over there. Obviously, Manny not being there, but Bay has come over and been a very productive player and looks to be a great hitter. So we're going to have to do the same thing that we failed to do last year."
The Angels believe Lackey is tough enough to handle it.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.