ANAHEIM -- Facing elimination in the American League Championship Series, the Angels are putting the ball in their ace's hands and hoping for the best in Game 5 against the Yankees on Thursday.
"If we're going down," third baseman Chone Figgins said, "we're going down with the big boy on the mound."
The "big boy," of course, is 6-foot-6, 245-pound right-hander John Lackey, and he'll be looking to preserve not only the Halos' season but also, potentially, his career with this club.
Soon to be the top starting pitcher on the free-agent market, Lackey, who turns 31 on Friday, could very well be headed elsewhere this offseason. It's conceivable, then, that Thursday's start could be his last in the uniform of an Angels team that selected him in the second round of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft and molded him into a bona fide No. 1 arm.
Loves to face: Torii Hunter, 2-for-23, 7 Ks Hates to face: Bobby Abreu, 20-for-64, 11 RBIs
Loves to face: Alex Rodriguez, 9-for-51, 23 Ks Hates to face: Derek Jeter, 15-for-44, 5 RBIs
Why he'll win: Power pitcher
Why he'll win: Big-game pitcher
Pitcher beware: Led AL in walks allowed and wild pitches
Pitcher beware: Allowed 11 homers in 13 home starts
Bottom line: Needs to limit walks and wild pitches
Bottom line: Needs to pitch deep into the game
"That's not really up to me," Lackey said. "I'm trying my best to just stay in the moment and try to help this team win and get on to the next game."
Lackey tried his best in Game 1 in the Bronx. But with sloppy play behind him, Siberian temperatures surrounding him and CC Sabathia slinging pitches past the Angels' bats, Lackey didn't exactly work under ideal circumstances.
When Lackey, who took the loss in Game 1, gets the ball again, the conditions should be more in his favor.
For one, the Angels appear to have recovered from the costly defensive miscues that plagued them in Games 1 and 2 -- miscues that might have been a product of the temperature and the time off that preceded this series.
The weather will also, obviously, be much more tolerable. Lackey had noticeable trouble establishing the spin on his breaking ball early in Game 1, as tends to be the case for pitchers working in low-40s temps.
As far as Lackey's matchup is concerned, the Yankees' lineup is what it is. They remain as much of a threat as ever. The good news is that Lackey won't have to oppose Sabathia again, though A.J. Burnett is no easy draw in his own right.
With all of this in mind, Lackey will be looking to improve on a Game 1 performance in which he allowed four runs (two earned) on nine hits in 5 2/3 innings.
It's a pressure situation, though nothing Lackey, who won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie, hasn't experienced before.
But Lackey said this start has a decidedly different feel to it than that Game 7 experience.
"Then, I was, what, 22?" said Lackey, who actually was 24 at the time. "I was just trying to help the older guys and not mess it up, you know. Now, I'm kind of one of those older guys that needs to step up and needs to help lead this team to another game."
Confidence erodes a bit for a team in the Angels' position, and history is certainly against them. But the club will take a "one game at a time" approach, and having Lackey on the hill gives the Angels reason to believe they can push this series to Game 6.
"Lackey, man, he's a bulldog," center fielder Torii Hunter said. "If there's anybody I'm confident with, it's definitely Lackey. We've just got to make sure we score some runs and play good defense behind him. We didn't do that last time."
While the defense has improved, the bats have sagged this series. And that puts added pressure on Lackey to step up.
"Honestly," Lackey said, "in the playoffs, it's hard to expect a lot of [run support], because you're going against great pitchers and the offense is sometimes tough to come by at this time of year, for sure. But I've got enough on my plate to worry about with their lineup. Our guys are great hitters. They'll be just fine on their own."
The 2009 season has not been a smooth ride for Lackey, who began the year on the disabled list with right elbow inflammation and didn't make his first start until May 16. He had a 5.18 ERA after 11 starts, but he recovered to go 8-4 with a 3.02 ERA in his last 16 appearances.
Lackey set the tone for the Angels' three-game sweep of the Red Sox by working 7 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 1, but his Game 1 performance in this ALCS was an uphill battle all the way. In the time since, he was available out of the Angels' bullpen, in case of an emergency in Games 3 and 4. And now it's up to him to save the season.
"It starts with John Lackey," manager Mike Scioscia said. "Obviously, he has to go out there and give us a chance to win. We've very confident he's going to do that. He's done it before."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.