FORT MYERS, Fla. -- John Lackey is a changed man.
He believes it, and so should you.
For the first time since Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in the fall of 2011, Lackey feels like a starting major league pitcher again.
“Everything has [felt better],” Lackey said. “It’s nice for it not to hurt, to be honest with you. Definitely feels like I took a few years off [my career]. It’s been a while, probably a couple of years [since feeling this good].”
Forget beer and chicken. What Red Sox fans grew tired of in Lackey's first two seasons was the way he handled himself on the mound. He looked angry. He was angry about his 26-23 record and 5.00-plus ERA in two seasons in Boston. He appeared angry at teammates who didn’t make key plays behind him in the field. He appeared angry with the medical misfortune of a bad elbow at the start of an $82.5 million contract.
He looked like a pro athlete who wanted nothing to do with being in Boston.
So I asked him, is he happier and more relaxed and ready for a fresh start?
“It’s a learning process, for sure,” Lackey said, acknowledging the challenge. “I think it’s just more just excited to play baseball again. Yeah, probably I am smiling a little bit more. I’m just excited to be back out there with the boys and getting after it. It’s fun.”
Does he feel like a new man?
“I don’t know about that,” Lackey said. “I worked pretty hard. It’s definitely something I wanted to be ready when I got to the camp. It was just a matter of putting a lot of work in, rehabbing my arm last year. I just wanted to give myself the best chance possible to perform well.
“We have a long way to Opening Day. I feel great right now. But things can happen sometimes. I think I put in the effort level and the work this offseason to give myself the best chance possible.”
John Farrell -- Lackey's pitching coach in the right-hander's first year in Boston in 2010 -- not only believes Lackey is capable of rediscovering his old form, the new Red Sox manager is counting on it. Farrell has noticed the lost weight and the good condition Lackey is in.
“That was evident in the offseason,” Farrell said Thursday. “Getting down here, there’s another step towards that. The fact that he’s in regular turns in the bullpen and not feeling anything, physically. It’s almost a fresh start for him from a physical standpoint. But I think when you look at the way he’s committed, restructured his body, it speaks in confidence when you talk with him one-on-one. We’re going to need him, I know that.”
Farrell is smart enough to know that, for now, he has to hold back the reins on the 32-year-old so that he’s indeed ready when the bell rings for real in April.
“We also recognize that the first year back from Tommy John, he’s going to go through some peaks and valleys, arm-strength wise, but in my view I think it’s going to affect him less because of the way he throws the ball on such a downhill plane as opposed to a drop-and-drive pitcher who might rely on velocity a little bit more consistently," Farrell said. "He’s in a good place right now.”
I wondered just like the rest of New England whether the Lackey truly was salvageable after a disappointing 2010 and a disastrous 2011.
I wondered what happened to the right-hander who showed so much promise as a rookie, starting and winning Game 7 of the 2002 World Series for the Angels. I wondered what happened to a pitcher who went 19-9 with a 3.01 ERA in 2007.
In four previous seasons before signing with Boston (2006-09), Lackey had a WHIP of 1.27 or lower each year. In his two seasons with the Red Sox (2010-11), it has ballooned to 1.42 and 1.62. In 2011, he was 12-12 but with a ghastly 6.41 ERA in 28 starts, the worst ERA of any Red Sox starter with that many starts in the modern era.
“I had a bad year that year but I also had a blown-out elbow,” said Lackey, who made his biggest start in the final Sunday of the 2011 season at Yankee Stadium. “The rest of my years in the big league have been OK. I feel like if I'm healthy, I’ll be fine.”
Lackey also isn’t going to blame members of the Red Sox medical staff who cleared him to pitch in 2011 -- staff members that aren’t around anymore.
“I’m not going to get into all that,” he said.
The biggest question is: Can John Lackey regain his form and become the workhorse in the Red Sox rotation that Theo Epstein envisioned?
“Yeah, I don’t see why not,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling real great the first year here and I still threw about 220 [innings]. That might have gotten me in trouble a little bit the last year, trying to go out there and do some stuff maybe when I shouldn’t have been.”
I wondered whether he was going to be like Daisuke Matsuzaka last season, all but thrown to the trash heap of those players who had great talent but never recognized their potential in Boston.
The recent list is a long and dubious one.
In addition to Matsuzaka, who did manage to win a World Series in his time in Boston, there’s Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett (post-2011 $68 million contract extension), Carl Crawford and Lackey.
But here’s the real deal. The Red Sox have no choice but to give Lackey every chance to find his form of the early to mid-2000s, when he was the ace of a talented Angels pitching staff.
Even as late as 2009, when he beat the Red Sox in the ALDS, he was considered an elite American League pitcher, at least one with elite stuff.
Should they have laid out that kind of money over five years? Probably not. But the Red Sox know that, given the chance with Farrell and new pitching coach Juan Nieves, Lackey has a chance to become a heartwarming reclamation project. He’s signed through at least 2014, with a conditional option for 2015.
Now is the time for Lackey to get back on the mound and get accustomed to again throwing his hammer curve and slider, the pitches that made him one of the most effective pitchers in the American League.
“I haven’t thrown any yet,” Lackey said Thursday. “I've thrown some breaking balls on flat ground just playing catch, that sort of thing, but I just haven’t thrown it down the hill [from the mound] yet. I threw breaking balls at the end of the season last year when I did that little two-inning thing. I’m not concerned about that.”
Lackey looks fit, losing what he and Farrell say is 17 pounds over the winter, and more since the ’11 season.
“I hope it helps,” Lackey said. “Time will tell. It’s a long season. Honestly, you don’t want to get too skinny because you need a little something to get through 200 innings. I feel good about my offseason. I feel good about the guy I worked out with this offseason.
“I feel real good. Physically, no limitations right now. I’ve worked pretty hard to be ready and excited to move forward.”
I believe him. So should Red Sox fans, for now. After all, what is there to lose?
To the Trags Bag for the question of the week: Based on what you’re hearing out of Fort Myers, what are your expectations for the Red Sox this year?
@FlavaFrase2010 This team has a whole new mindset
@CraigMacCormack They'll win more than 69 games in 2013 so yes, they’re in the right direction.
Julia Werbinski Fitzgerald: The "if healthy" part [on Lackey] is concerning.
Paul Anderson Jr. Yes I do [believe in the Red Sox are in the right direction].
Jeff Lowenstein Only direction the Red Sox can go is up after last season's disaster!