DETROIT–Even in his dark and stormy days in Boston, it was his teammates who spoke up for John Lackey. So when he’d gone out and won a game against Justin Verlander, a game in which those teammates did not get a hit until the fifth inning and still stole out of Comerica Park with a 2-1 lead in the ALCS, he essentially left it to those teammates to speak for him.
“Before the game I kept telling people ‘everyone thinks Justin Verlander is the only guy pitching here tonight,” said Jake Peavy. “Well, we have a tough cowboy going out there against him.”
“He likes these situations,” said Jonny Gomes. “He likes being where people think he shouldn’t be.”
But, as Lackey said, “I’ve been here before.”
When he left with two out in the seventh inning with his 1-0 lead, he did not go quietly, arguing with John Farrell that he should stay in and finish his game. That’s who he is. “John lives by the words ‘never give in’,” said pitching coach Juan Nieves. “That’s who he is.”
And because the Red Sox have never given in, Jim Leyland faces this reality: his starting pitchers have thrown three brilliant games. Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Verlander have thrown 21 innings, allowed six hits in 65 at-bats, two runs, struck out 35… and the Red Sox have a 2-1 lead in the series.
“This,” said David Ortiz, “is about as exhausting as it gets. The tension in these games has been unbelievable.”
“What do you expect?” asked Dustin Pedroia. “This is who we are.”
Start with Lackey, and two of the giant moments of the night. It was scoreless in the bottom of the fifth, Jhonny Peralta at third and one out, Omar Infante at the plate. Lackey threw him six straight curveballs, finally striking him out, then retired Andy Dirks to preserve the tie.
Then in the seventh inning, Mike Napoli, who had struck out in six straight at-bats, battled to a 3-2 count against Verlander. “He grinds and grinds and grinds,” said Gomes, as he had on June 23 when he forced Verlander to throw 28 pitches in four-at-bats. “He kept throwing me breaking balls, I kept battling hoping for something I could drive,” said Napoli.
Indeed, he got a 3-2 fastball and drove it through the cold, windy dank nightfall over the fence in left-center.
But Lackey had one more unforgettable moment. With one out and Victor Martinez on first base in the seventh and clinging to the lead, Lackey went 3-and-0 on Detroit’s hottest hitter, Peralta. At 3-and-0, he knew Peralta had the green light, that he liked to hit 3-and-0, and threw him a nasty curveball.
Peralta took the strike, then popped up the next pitch, and out came Farrell, motioning for Craig Breslow, much to Lackey’s chagrin.
Breslow actually walked Alex Avila, but retired Infante, but that wasn’t the end of the innocence. Breslow walked Austin Jackson with one out in the eighth and Torii Hunter singled. Enter Taz. How, because Junichi Tazawa had some time to rest in September, his velocity has been spiking back to 93-96, and Farrell has restored his faith in him in leverage situations.
This two on, one out leverage situation was Miguel Cabrera. Not the healthy Miguel Cabrera, but Miguel Cabrera.
Tazawa pumped four fastballs down and away, struck him out, and the ever-astounding Koji Uehara came on, struck out Prince Fielder on a filthy split. Oh, he gave up a hit to Martinez in the ninth, but with one out, Uehara got Avila to hit a ground ball the one place every Red Sox player hoped he would—to Stephen Drew. To Pedroia. To Napoli. Done.
“Baseball is often a game of will,” said Nieves. “Lackey never gave in. Neither did Tazawa, or Koji. To be 2-1 against that pitching is testament to will.”