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Healthy John Lackey showing his true capabilities at last for Sox

06.26.13 at 9:10 pm ET
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It took more than three long years, but the right-hander who took the mound Wednesday for the Red Sox may finally be the John Lackey they signed in 2009. With his arm healthy and the last few seasons fading behind him, Lackey has given the Sox the performance they always expected from him so far in 2013, and he put the exclamation point on that run on Wednesday.

Lackey struck out 12 Rockies on Wednesday, giving up two runs over seven innings, and became the first Sox pitcher to strike out 12 without walking a batter since Pedro Martinez did it in 2003. He threw his fastball as hard as 95 mph and brought his season ERA down to 2.99 – his best through 13 starts since 2007, the year he finished third in the AL Cy Young voting and went to the All-Star game as an Angel.

Sox manager John Farrell said Lackey looks completely different this year than he did in 2010 and 2011, when he battled an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery. In 2011, he posted the worst ERA and WHIP of his career, pitching through increasing pain in his arm for most of the year. That limitation no longer exists.

‘€œOne, he’€™s not competing against his body,” Farrell said. “The Tommy John surgery, the rehab, the reshaping of the body — it’€™s almost like we’€™re looking at a different guy, in a couple of ways. His stuff doesn’€™t tail off as it might have early on when he signed here. He’€™s always been a tenacious competitor. We continue to see that every time he walks to the mound –much to the credit to what John has put himself through, and that includes the surgery and all the work he’€™s put in following that.’€

After getting to know Lackey as a teammate with the Angels, Mike Napoli came to the plate against him 14 times in 2010 and 2011 (and homered against him once). He said the Lackey of those years was visibly different from the one he saw in Anaheim.

“I knew he wasn’t really that healthy,” Napoli said. “It looked like he was forcing pitches and his arm angle was different. He’s free and easy now and looks good.”

Now, Lackey looks like the pitcher Napoli caught in Anaheim – or, Napoli suggested, maybe even better.

“I think he’s throwing a little harder than he was,” Napoli said. “He’s just locating his ball. You can tell when he throws the ball, he knows where it’s going and puts it where he wants it. He’s throwing strikes, going after hitters, and it’s good to see.”

With Clay Buchholz suffering a setback in his recovery from a neck injury on Wednesday and Jon Lester struggling, Lackey’s performance, and his ability to pitch deep into games, is especially crucial. Since returning on April 28 from an injury suffered in his first start, he’s made nine quality starts in 12 appearances and seven in his last eight outings.

“What John Lackey continues to do has been not only consistent, but even in the offseason we felt like he was one guy that has a chance to impact our team as much as anyone, and he’s doing that,” Farrell said. “So he’s kind of taken on a greater significance as we go deeper into the season by his performance.”

Michael Cuddyer had a better day than most Rockies players against Lackey on Wednesday, hitting a solo homer off of him in the sixth. He entered the game hitting .316/.381/.789 against Lackey in 21 plate appearances, but even he was impressed by Lackey’s command and velocity on Wednesday.

“Lackey, he pitched different than I had ever seen him pitch today,” Cuddyer said. “One, he was throwing harder than he ever has. Two, he stuck with fastballs.”

Indeed, Lackey struck Cuddyer out in the first inning swinging at a 94 mph fastball. Seven of his strikeouts came on his four-seam fastball, which has averaged about 92 mph this year.

“I saw eight fastballs today and zero off-speed pitches, which I had never seen before,” Cuddyer said. “And that’€™s what he had success with the whole day. I don’€™t know, what did he have, 10, 11, 12 strikeouts? And I’€™d say eight or nine of them were on heaters. He was spotting it. Especially early in the game, he was spotting it really well.”

Napoli said Lackey’s increased velocity, a product of his healthy arm, makes him more comfortable pounding the strike zone the way he did Wednesday, when he threw 27 of his first 32 pitches and 73 of 98 overall for strikes.

“When you’ve got velocity, you feel better about going after hitters when you know you can do stuff with the ball,” Napoli said. “He’s attacking, and when we give him runs he can work with, he pitches to contact and try to get the quick out.”

With 13 starts behind him, Lackey’s numbers across the board are in line with his best years in Anaheim. His 2.99 ERA and 1.20 WHIP are accompanied by a 3.61 FIP, so while the ERA may not stay below 3.00 all year, he shouldn’t be due for a huge regression.

Additionally, on Wednesday, he improved his already solid strikeouts per nine innings rate significantly: he entered the game with a 7.7 rate and left with it at 8.4. Lackey has averaged more than eight strikeouts per nine innings only once before in his career, when he averaged 8.6 in 2005, and his strikeout rate has declined steadily since then, giving him a career average of 7.1.

Lackey also has cut down on his walks this season, issuing just 17 free passes in 78 1/3 innings (1.95 per nine innings) compared to 73 strikeouts. In 2010 and 2011, he walked 3.0 and 3.2 batters per nine innings, respectively.

Lackey said Wednesday that he feels strong, that that strength is behind his increase in velocity, and that he expects to pitch even better in the second half.

“I’m pretty excited about it, really, because honestly, my second halves of my career have usually been better than my firsts,” Lackey said. “So, moving forward, it’s been kind of exciting.”

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