DETROIT – The final burial of those empty beer cans and worn-out chicken bones took place here Tuesday night. They have long memories in Boston, longer than most, and while Jon Lester pitched his way to forgiveness and Josh Beckett found absolution via trade, John Lackey still lacked that signature moment that could replace the image of him kicking back with a drumstick of Popeye's and a twelver of Bud Light as the 2011 season collapsed around him.
Now, they will remember his face. It is not a new look. When Lackey gets mad, his steely glare turns to incredulity with a touch of derp. He did not want to exit this game. For 6 2/3 innings, he stared down Justin Verlander and outpitched him, and now Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell was coming to get him, and Lackey did what he always has done in such situations: wear a look of the aggrieved, curse at his manager and, eventually, tromp off the mound.
That it took this long for Boston to embrace what he has become – the sort who can go pitch-for-pitch with Verlander and beat him in the postseason, which Lackey did Tuesday night in a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series that gave Boston a 2-1 series lead – is not fair, of course. Nobody ever said playing for the Boston Red Sox is. It is a place where minutiae mushrooms into a reputation, where the past can fester like MRSA. Like those in New York who deem whether a player is a True Yankee, Boston abides by certain thresholds, too, one of which goes something like: Win in October and we'll forget everything we once thought.
Finally, after three seasons without a playoff appearance, an ERA that looked like a hotel-room number, a Tommy John surgery that shelved him for a year and the lingering sentiment that his $82.5 million due him over five years would've been better served as bonfire kindling, Lackey returned in 2013 minus perhaps 25 pounds and plus the arm that made him a World Series hero. It's easy to forget the Lackey who pitched the Los Angeles Angels to the 2002 championship because the one who so struggled in Boston looked nothing like him.
And this, for now, served as the coup de grace. For the third time in three games, Boston went hitless over the first four innings, and Lackey didn't bend. For the third time in three games, the margin of victory was one – the first time in the 44-year history of the ALCS that has happened – and Lackey didn't break. And even if it took some nifty maneuvering from three relief pitchers to wiggle out of trouble, including back-to-back strikeouts of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder with a runner on third base to end the eighth inning, this was Lackey's game, Lackey's win and Lackey's moment to savor.
"There he is," Red Sox catcher David Ross yelled across the clubhouse as Lackey sauntered in. "God, I love you."
On the front of Lackey's red T-shirt, in big block letters, read a Red Sox motto: WE FEAR NOTHING. This much is true. After a 1-0 loss in Game 1, the Red Sox faced the prospect of Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer in Game 2 and Verlander, who entered the game with a 28-inning scoreless streak, in Game 3. They weathered Scherzer's onslaught and beat up Detroit's bullpen to even the series, then shook off Verlander striking out six consecutive hitters in the second and third innings in search of one mistake. Verlander actually made two. Jonny Gomes yanked one down the left-field line about 5 feet foul. Mike Napoli deposited the other over the left-field fence in the seventh inning.
"I knew I was going to have to pitch pretty good today," Lackey said. "He's having a great career, great season, great postseason."
On this day, Lackey was better. He struck out eight, didn't walk a batter and allowed just four hits, including a single in the seventh inning to Victor Martinez. One batter later, with lefty Alex Avila due up, Red Sox manager John Farrell started his walk to the mound. Lackey went Lackey. "You've got to be [expletive] me," he blurted.
"If he comes out there and he's happy about it," Lester said, "he's not the guy we want on the mound."
Of all the things the Red Sox did to change Lackey – amend his eating habits, rebuild his arm strength post-surgery, acclimate him back to a region that grew to associate him with failure – they never tried to turn him into something he isn't. Part of being manager is angering pitchers – Jake Peavy was livid at Farrell for taking him out of an AL Division Series game against Tampa – and it doesn't take much to inspire the Lackey Face.
"I wasn't quite ready to come out at that moment," he said, and nobody could blame him. Lackey owned the outer edge of the plate, where he made his living with the Angels, and every one of his strikeouts came swinging, a show of dominance even in his 2013 season had come in flashes more than consistently.
Still, that it was even there meant Lackey walked into Game 3 with the proper mindset. Verlander was not this mythical beast, some pitching Cerberus who could maim three hitters at once. Honestly, the Red Sox were tired of hearing about him. John Lackey was about the same height as Verlander, about the same build. So what if he threw harder. Lackey could make up for it with command of his slider and curve ball. And so it went, zero on top of zero for six innings until for one instant Verlander cracked, which was more than enough for Lackey and the Red Sox. This is a series of small things turning big.
"After Game 2, I felt like I'd been in a heavyweight fight, and I hadn't even participated in the game," Peavy said. "Game 1 came down to the final at-bat. It's the way it should be. I really think that. You're looking at two heavyweights out there slugging it out. Both these ball clubs are so complete on all sides of the ball."
Because of that, and because the winner advances to the World Series, these games tax all 25 men inside the clubhouse, nobody more than the starting pitcher. And it's why for anybody who still associates Lackey with 2011, it's time to stop. He earned a reprieve during the regular season. Tuesday provided the full pardon. He won the right to walk around the clubhouse saying WE FEAR NOTHING. The back of the T-shirt screamed big, bold words as well, and minus the grammatical error, they couldn't have been more fitting for the Red Sox.
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