Lackey in his element in big games

Lackey in his element in big games

ANAHEIM -- Big Bad John.

Big Game John.

Big Bad Big Game John.

This is John Lackey, the Angels' choice to open the postseason and generate momentum with some good, old-fashioned, old-school hardball.

"John knows what you have to do to go out and win quote-unquote big games," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "You're not always going to have the sun shining on you. There's a certain mindset, and John has it. He wants to be that guy you can count on."

He's big, 6-foot-6 and raw-boned. He's bad to the bone, as tough an hombre as you'll find on a pitcher's mound. And, yes, he clearly loves the big game.

"He's as competitive as you get," said Angels general manager Bill Stoneman, a quality pitcher in his time. "Plus, he's very talented. That's a good combination."

Lackey goes into the postseason with a comfort zone, knowing he's been there before and responded. Drawing on positive experiences can carry a pitcher a long way, especially if he has early struggles with command.

Lackey was as tested as an athlete can be in 2002, his rookie year. He was handed the ball by manager Mike Scioscia for Game 7 of the World Series against San Francisco and Barry Bonds in Anaheim.

Big John bowed his neck, reached back for his best stuff, and won as big a game as he'll ever pitch, giving up one run on four hits and a walk in five innings, striking out four Giants.

He'd turned 24 four days earlier, with 20 games worth of Major League experience behind him. One of those was Game 4 of the ALCS, when he shut out the Twins for seven innings on three hits, walking none, while getting the win in a 7-1 verdict in Anaheim.

This gets overlooked in the glow of Game 7 of the World Series, but it was an even more dominant performance.

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Lackey already pitched a big one before the postseason. In his native Texas, he was the starter and winning pitcher when the Angels clinched the Wild Card on Sept. 26.

A big-time quarterback at Abilene High School, in a state that lives for football, Lackey got a taste of Friday Night Lights in his teens. His ability to thrive under pressure is rooted in that Texas soil.

"In a big game, I'm pretty competitive," Lackey said. "I played everything growing up, and I like to come through in big games."

In conversation, he's direct and to the point, an all-business manner he takes to the mound. This guy doesn't mess around. He goes right to work, putting his fastball in good locations, getting ahead in counts, dropping the hammer down with two strikes.

American League Division Series schedule
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim vs. Boston Red Sox
Date
Time
Site
Network
Wed., Oct. 36:30 p.m. Fenway Park TBS
Fri., Oct. 58:30 p.m.Fenway Park TBS
Sun. Oct. 73 p.m.Angel Stadium TBS
*Mon. Oct. 89:30 p.m.Angel Stadium TBS
*Wed. Oct. 108:30 p.m.Fenway Park TBS
New York Yankees vs. Cleveland Indians
Date
Time
Site
Network
Thu., Oct. 46:30 p.m. Jacobs Field TBS
Fri., Oct. 55 p.m. Jacobs Field TBS
Sun. Oct. 76:30 p.m. Yankee Stadium TBS
*Mon. Oct. 86 p.m. Yankee Stadium TBS
*Wed. Oct. 105 p.m. Jacobs Field TBS
* If necessary. All times ET.

"John has great stuff and command," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's consistent. He's competitive. He's a lead dog, a guy who likes to be out front.

"He's probably a little more vocal than Garret [Anderson] and Vlad [Guerrero]. He's supportive of everybody out there. He provides leadership."

Lackey has enjoyed his best of six seasons, by far. He set the Cy Young Award as one of his goals -- reaching the postseason is always first and foremost -- and he's been in the hunt all year.

Boston's Josh Beckett is the consensus Cy Young favorite, but Lackey figures to finish in the top three or four in the balloting. A few late-season leads got away from him, costing him wins, or he might be the favorite, given that his ERA is better than Beckett's.

When he wasn't able to square off against Beckett at Fenway Park in August because of a change in the Angels' plans, Lackey was visibly upset.

"You always look forward to something like that," he said.

Lackey never criticizes a teammate, but he's the first to come flying out of the dugout to defend one. Everyone saw that the night Mariners right-hander Jorge Campillo threw fastballs that had Jeff Mathis and Vladimir Guerrero scrambling for cover.

Lackey will pitch inside. He will establish that part of the plate to keep hitters honest and make his killer curveball all the more effective.

He's Big Bad John, fearless, bold, showing the way.

Big game? Give him the ball.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.