Lackey, latest unlikely hero, delivers unexpected title to Red Sox
BOSTON -- By the time the sun dipped beneath the Charles River on Wednesday evening, Boston was already celebrating. The windows of the Prudential Tower, which rises beyond the rightfield stands of Fenway Park, were selectively lit to spell out: GO SOX. Outside Fenway, on Van Ness Street, Steve Horgan, the police officer whose bullpen celebration during the ALCS landed him on front pages across the country, was taking photos with any fan who wanted one, his arms raised skyward in the pose that will keep him famous for several days yet.
The celebration continued through the first pitch of Game 6 of the World Series, and it never stopped. Some fans had paid thousands of dollars for standing-room-only tickets, but the entire ballpark might as well have been standing room only, so infrequently were its green seats used. The climax of the party came when Red Sox closer Koji Uehara struck out Matt Carpenter with -- what else? -- his invisible splitter, to finish off a thoroughly dominating 6-1 win over the Cardinals. Boston had clinched its eighth World Series championship, and, after so many cursed decades, its third since 2004. The Red Sox had also, for the first time since 1918, won a championship at Fenway. The ballpark, like the entire city, was ready for it.
This was, in its way, the most unexpected title that Boston has ever won, coming so soon after a crushing late collapse in 2011, and an ugly 69-93 record in '12. The Red Sox are just the second team ever to rise from last place to a World Series championship in a single year, and they were lifted by a number of unlikely leaders. There was 37-year-old David Ortiz, the superstar hitter who became an impossible out; in Game 6, St. Louis more or less gave up trying to retire Ortiz, walking him four times (including three intentional walks). He still went 11-of-16 at the plate in the series (a batting average of .688), and was named MVP. There was also Uehara, the 38-year-old Japanese closer, who became impossible to hit.
There were, in addition to Uehara, the other six mid-level free agents that Boston signed last winter -- none of whom was in particularly heavy demand, despite having had success in the past. They seamlessly integrated themselves into the Red Sox roster and reshaped what remained of the club's core. In Game 6, Shane Victorino was the key member of that group. A bad back had kept the outfielder from playing in either of the previous two games, but in the bottom of the third inning, with the score 0-0, he hit the three-run double off of previously untouchable rookie sensation Michael Wacha, giving Boston all the runs it would need. For good measure Victorino added an RBI single the next inning to increase his team's lead to 6-0.
Of all of the Red Sox' unlikely heroes on Wednesday night, and throughout the regular season, one stood out. He pitched 6⅔ innings and allowed one run in Game 6. When Boston manager John Farrell finally pulled the starter from the game in the top of the seventh -- the manager had first tried one batter earlier, but the right-hander talked him out of it, shouting, "This is my guy!" -- the Fenway crowd chanted his name. "LACK-EY!" they cried, in unison. "LACK-EY! LACK-EY!"
John Lackey, 35, who spent eight seasons pitching for the Angeles, signed a five-year, $82.5 million free-agent contract with the Red Sox prior to the 2010 season. His time in Boston began in disappointing fashion -- he was 12-12 that first year, with a 4.40 ERA -- and he was soon vilified as the overpaid, underachieving face of an overpaid, underachieving team. "Everything in my life pretty much sucks right now, to be honest," he said early in 2011. It would get worse. He went 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA that year, after which he was identified, along with fellow starters Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, as one of the ne'er-do-wells who rode out the Red Sox' September collapse sucking down fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse.
By the time it was revealed that his struggles in 2011 could be traced to a blown-out elbow -- which required Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entirety of '12 -- Boston (the town, not the team) had written him off. He was irredeemable. Fans wondered why the Red Sox even allowed him in the clubhouse, as if the rest of the team could catch what he had.
This season seemed seemed just as ill fated as the previous three when, during his first start of the year, he walked off the mound grasping at his right arm. But when he returned three weeks later, something entirely unanticipated happened. He began pitching like the John Lackey the Red Sox thought they had signed four years earlier. His fastball was back, and so was his breaking ball. His control was better than ever. Though his record was only 10-13, his ERA was 3.52, his WHIP was 1.157 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 4.03, by far the best mark of his career. With every strong start, the Fenway crowd began to applaud him when would leave the mound. After all that he had been through, he never acknowledged the cheers, never tipped his cap, not once.
In the postseason, Lackey was magnificent -- going 3-1 with a 2.77 ERA -- but still he displayed little joy, publicly. Just this past Tuesday, someone fishing for a quote about Fenway's magic, asked him what it is like to pitch in the ballpark. "It is not a real great place to pitch," he said.
In Game 6, after Lackey delivered the type of performance on the type of stage that the Boston front office once imagined he might -- Lackey, who won Game 7 of the World Series for the Angels as a rookie in 2002, became the first pitcher to win World Series clinchers for two different teams -- he still wasn't ready to forgive the hometown fans, whom Ortiz called "the best fans in baseball."
"It's been tough, and there have been some things that haven't been a whole lot of fun," he said on the field, even as his teammates hoisted the Commissioner's Trophy. "I'm so tired of talking about what I went through," he said next, in his laconic Texas drawl. "Can we talk about winning this? One time?"
Someone asked Lackey what it meant for him to win the title for the Red Sox, and he answered the question in a telling way. "I'm going to enjoy it more celebrating with my teammates, and the people that have always been with me," he said.
When he left the mound in the seventh, with the fans cheering wildly for him -- he had clinched the World Series for them, they just knew it -- it had appeared as if he might not look up before he entered the dugout. But just before he reached the steps he finally reached for his cap's brim and lifted it, just for a second, begrudgingly. What was he thinking about, at that moment? "A lot of stuff," he would say. He wasn't smiling.
Even after what happened on Wednesday night at Fenway, even after what Lackey gave to the crowd and what it gave him in return, it is clear that he will never love Boston. But now, Boston loves him, along with the rest of his team of unlikely champions, and it always will.