Lackey: A mound of composure
Game 2 starter enjoys best year by controlling emotions
ANAHEIM -- When the last start of your rookie year goes down in the books as a victory in Game 7 of the World Series, well, what more do you shoot for?
Three years after he accomplished the rare feat as a 23-year-old Major League neophyte, Angels right-hander John Lackey will get another chance to answer that question Wednesday night when he takes the mound at home against the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.
"Being the Game 2 starter is definitely a big deal for me," Lackey said. "I'm excited about the opportunity and hopefully make the most of it."
Even though it might seem silly to surmise that Lackey had a breakout year in 2005, especially considering his astounding success in the second half of 2002 following his callup from Triple-A Salt Lake, people around baseball all know it's true.
After a sophomore struggle -- a 10-16 record and a 4.63 ERA -- in 2003 and an up-and-down 2004 that saw him give up 215 hits in 198 1/3 innings and post a 4.67 ERA, Lackey found his breaking ball, his changeup, and, more important, his composure.
April 18 will go down as the day to look back on for Lackey.
He had been rocked by the A's in Oakland the previous day, giving up seven runs on 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings and ballooning his ERA to 8.22, and his frustrations were showing on the mound.
Lackey had been so collected and so poised during the 2002 playoffs that his propensity to cruise through one inning and then blow up in the next was baffling to the Angels and their fans.
So manager Mike Scioscia and pitching coach Bud Black took Lackey behind closed doors in Anaheim and had a little talk.
"That was a long time ago," Lackey said. "They kind of called me in and just wanted me to get back to executing pitches and just being focused in tough spots, being able to realize that there's certain situations in a game that can mean the outcome of a game."
Since then, Lackey has become the pitcher everybody saw in that World Series. In fact, he's become even more of a pitcher.
Lackey primarily rode his fastball to success in 2002 before the rest of the league figured him out in a hurry in 2003. This year, he's refined his breaking ball into two pitches -- a straight, diving curveball and a cutter/slider -- and his changeup is vastly improved.
Lackey finished with a 14-5 record, matching his career-high in wins from a year ago, and added a career-low 3.44 ERA and 199 strikeouts, which ranked third in the AL. He also gave up only 207 hits in a career-high 209 innings.
Against playoff opponent New York, Lackey was even better, going 2-0 with a 2.53 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings.
"It hasn't been any one thing that he's done better this year," Black said. "But I guess you could say that the biggest thing has been his ability to work his way out of trouble by just concentrating on executing his pitches and not trying to overthrow.
"He's not trying to do too much."
As for mound makeup, gone are the pouts and the kicking at the dirt. Lackey's swagger is back, and he'll happily be able to display it in front of a sold-out Angel Stadium crowd Wednesday night. Especially with all that big-game experience under his belt.
"You know, I've done this kind of thing before," Lackey said. "I've done the flyovers and all of that kind of stuff. Your routine gets messed with just a little bit. But if you've been through it before, it's not as big of a deal."
Lackey didn't get a chance to go through it last year even though the Angels made the playoffs.
Jarrod Washburn, Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar started the three games of the 2004 ALDS against the Boston Red Sox, and the Angels were bounced in three games.
During Spring Training last February, reliever Brendan Donnelly, one of Lackey's closest friends on the team, took him aside and offered some sage advice.
"I told him that his goal should not only be for our team to make the playoffs, but that he'll get the chance to pitch in the playoffs," Donnelly said.
"Now look where he is."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.