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Lackey encouraged by first outing

Lackey encouraged by first outing

TEMPE, Ariz. -- All-Star John Lackey, the Angels' Opening Day starter in 2007, feels armed and on track to do it again -- to take the ball on March 31 in Minnesota -- if that's what manager Mike Scioscia elects to do.

"I don't think it's an issue now," Lackey said, having overcome early spring elbow stiffness to pitch 1 2/3 solid innings against the A's on Monday in his Cactus League debut. "I was never that worried [about the elbow] that I was going to miss time during the season.

"I think I'll be ready. Everything felt great today. I felt I could have finished that [second] inning pretty easily. Obviously, they're going to be careful with me first time out. With Eskie [Kelvim Escobar] down [with shoulder tendinitis], they're definitely more cautious."

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Lackey issued full-count walks to the first two hitters he faced, but he escaped a bases-loaded, one-out predicament when Chone Figgins adeptly triggered a third-to-first double play on Emil Brown's grounder.

Lackey reached his pitch limit against the always selective A's when Rob Bowen lifted his 32nd delivery for the second out in the second inning. That came after Donnie Murphy's double to left-center field.

Lackey had one strikeout, getting Jack Hannahan on a half-swing leading off the second, but he was more interested in a pain-free effort than evaluating the quality of his stuff.

"I was hoping to hit a few spots, for my arm to feel good," Lackey said. "I'll figure out the rest later. I felt good -- ready to go."

Before the game, Scioscia said it was "possible, but not probable" that Lackey would be ready to make the Opening Day start in Minnesota.

After watching Lackey's performance, Scioscia maintained his wait-and-see stance.

"John got a workout," Scioscia said. "He didn't miss too many spots. He threw some nice, live fastballs and could have gone further. We've got to see how he comes out of it, how his bullpens go. We'd just be guessing now."

Earlier, the manager stressed that he didn't want his ace doing too much too soon in an effort to get the Opening Day nod.

"The probability is he'll be ready for his first turn in the rotation -- that's more important than being the starter in the opener," Scioscia said. "John has his stamina built up; he's up to a certain level. If he can somehow get in the range to get to 100 pitches before Opening Day, there's an opportunity there.

"The probability is he will not be the Opening Day starter, but there is a possibility. We're going to let this thing play out."

Lackey, en route to the American League ERA title (3.01) and a career-high 19 wins, was ready for the opening bell in 2007. In the second Opening Day assignment of his career, he held the Rangers to one unearned run across five innings in a 4-1 decision at Angel Stadium.

"It's a long way to go to Opening Day," Lackey said. "It's an honor, especially when you have so many good pitchers on your team."

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Asked if he felt he could be ready to make the big date with the Twins, Lackey said: "Absolutely. It's important for me to be healthy, ready to go, get as many starts as I can.

"It's definitely an honor -- something I want to do. But I'm not going to risk being healthy at the end of the season for that."

Scioscia understands Lackey's pride, how driven the big Texan is to show the way for the rest of the staff.

"There's an honor to taking the ball for Opening Day, and it's something John will covet," Scioscia acknowledged. "But whenever a pitcher makes his first start, that's his Opening Day.

"A regular [position player] has a different preparation. You're expected to be ready on Opening Day. John obviously is a guy who would be targeted to start Opening Day, but that's not going to take prevalence over things that are more important."

Without spelling out a specific plan, Scioscia said it would be possible for Lackey to progress in his remaining Cactus League outings to a point where he could be close to 100-pitch capability by Opening Day.

"It's happened before," Scioscia said. "I'm not going to say it's not possible. But it's not probable. He'd have to get to 85 to 90 [pitches] after four starts, with the possibility of extending [to 100]."

An All-Star for the first time in 2007, Lackey showed his big-game capabilities out of the chute. In his rookie year of 2002, he pitched -- and won -- Game 7 of the World Series against the Giants in Anaheim.

He also delivered a stellar performance in a victory over the Twins in the American League Championship Series.

"There's a sense of duty," Scioscia said, defining a No. 1 starter's mindset as more than ego. "A guy wants to be a lead dog, shut down a losing streak, get the team off to a good start. If you want to be a lead dog, that's something you cherish.

"He showed tendencies of being a lead dog in 2002, when he went out and pitched Game 7. He wanted that ball. Maybe he wasn't as vocal, but the presence and tone he set was very real -- and it's continued."

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

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