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Irked John Lackey impresses on mound, fumes off of it

09.26.11 at 1:49 am ET
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NEW YORK — The exchange was bizarre.

Red Sox right-hander John Lackey had just concluded one of his most meaningful performances in his two years in Boston. Lackey had been, at times, dominant against the Yankees, logging six-plus innings in which he held New York to four runs (three earned). At one stretch from the second through sixth innings, he faced 14 batters and recorded 14 outs, and though he fell behind, 3-0, in the top of the first inning, he kept New York in check for long enough to allow the Sox to come back in an eventual 14-inning, 7-4 victory.

The normal postgame protocol would have Lackey engaged in a conversation about the quality of his stuff and execution, his ability to rebound from the stumble out of the gates, the satisfaction of a pivotal victory for the Sox.

But it immediately became clear that Lackey was edgy in fielding questions after the game. After a few clipped answers to game-related questions, the pitcher attempted to clear the air.

“Let me tell you the truth. Thirty minutes before the game, I got a text message on my cellphone from one of you … somebody in the media, talking about personal stuff,” said Lackey. “And I shouldn’t even be standing up here having to deal with it. I’m sitting here listening to music. I don’t know who got my phone number, but that’s over the line. Anything else you guys want to talk about?”

Lackey did allow that he “felt good,” and that “considering the circumstances and needing a win,” he viewed the performance as being among his best with the Sox. He was then asked whether the pregame text message served as a distraction.

“This is unbelievable I’ve got to do this,” he lamented, with the session coming to an abrupt halt soon thereafter.

Because he did not elaborate on his emotional state on the mound, it would be difficult to infer any connection between the incident and Lackey’s performance. Nonetheless, Lackey did perform with a conviction and effectiveness after the first inning that has rarely characterized the right-hander’s performance.

However, others around the Sox were happy to assess the right-hander’s outing, at a time when he delivered a desperately needed quality start.

“I thought his stuff was good. His fastball was crisp,” said catcher Jason Varitek. “We had a good mix today of using all his pitches, but I thought his fastball location was really good.”

Varitek said that he did not notice an unusual degree of emotion in his batterymate on Monday. He did, however, suggest that Lackey has continued to compete in spite of off-the-field issues that have swirled around him.

“He’s been pitching with the same emotion all year, trying to do well. I think very much this guy has taken the brunt of a lot of things outside of the health he goes out there with. It may not have always been the execution and how his results have come about,” said Varitek. “[But] he goes out there and competes everyday.”

Indeed, Lackey’s competitive appetite was most apparent in the bottom of the seventh, with the Sox up, 4-3. Though he’d been cruising for several innings, after a leadoff single, he was pulled from the game in favor of reliever Alfredo Aceves, who permitted the tying run to score.

After he was pulled, Lackey unleashed a string of profanities on his way from the mound to the dugout, expressing distress about his removal. It was the sort of fiery show that has seemed out of touch with reality at times (based on his performances) in Boston, particularly this year, when he has a 6.41 ERA that would rank as the highest in franchise history by a pitcher who logged at least 120 innings.

But it was that same trait that was once viewed — when he was an Angels ace — as a sign of his competitive fire, and an indication of his desire to lead a staff. On Sunday night, it once again seemed to be that sort of expression, an eruption from a player who wants to be on the mound with big games hanging in the balance.

That may not have been the talking point for Lackey following his outing, but it was a salient take away for the Sox at a time when their rotation has struggled.

The Sox have not identified who would start a one-game playoff on Thursday should the Sox find themselves in a season-ending tie for the wild card. However, with Josh Beckett slated to pitch on Monday and Jon Lester penciled in for potential duty on three days’ rest on Wednesday, the Sox might be left to scramble should they have a one-game playoff.

But the stuff and presence that Lackey, who potentially would be pitching on three days’ rest should the Sox have a play-in game on Thursday, showed on Sunday night suggested that he has a chance to be something he has only occasionally been during his Red Sox career — an answer.

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