Monday, August 27, 2007

Lackey takes the ball tonight, hoping for an Ace-like performance
By Coral Rae - Columnist
August 27th, 2007

While Kelvim Escobar is currently second in the AL ERA, he traditionally has not received significant or consistent run support, thus he does not get the high number of wins that is indicative of a traditional Ace. And while Escobar has had great numbers this season, including 15 wins, another pitcher on the Angels staff has overshadowed him the last couple seasons, John Lackey.

Bartolo Colon has also spent significant time on the disabled list this season, effectively taking him from the throne of Angels Ace. Colon has won the CY Young award, but he hasn’t been the same pitcher he once was since suffering a shoulder injury near the end of that season. He is no longer the Ace of the Angels rotation: That man, that Ace, is John Lackey.

Most teams would kill for three young guns like Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana. The promise they show is undeniable, despite Santana’s road woes, or his recent stint in AAA- Salt Lake. Here in Anaheim, these three young aces have been relegated to the back of the Angels rotation. Despite their potential, and the success that the future most certainly holds for each of them, the title of Angels Ace will have to wait a while. For now, John Lackey holds that title.

How has he attained this? How did he manage to usurp the throne from a former CY Young winner, and the holder of a $51 Million dollar contract? Let us first examine his statistics.

Lackey is 15-8 this season in 26 starts. If one does the math, that means only three of his starts have resulted in a No Decision. And the Angels have won all three. He has pitched 172.1 innings, on pace to best his personal record of 217.7 innings from last season. He has already racked up 133 strikeouts, which means he may best his own record of 199, set during the 2005 campaign, even if he is off pace by a bit. Lackey already has more wins this season than he has ever had before. His season stats stack up with most anyone in the AL this year. Tied with Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield for most wins, one ahead of Escobar and a few others, he is clearly coming into his prime as a starter.

But what holds Lackey back from true greatness? What did we all think after Lackey’s ERA soared up to 3.32 after his awful start last Friday morning? What happened? The answer: John Lackey’s emotions got the best of him.

Think back to the 2003-05 seasons, and the typical downfall was the stereotypical “big inning.” John would let one batter on, or let a base runner score because of an error, and it was suddenly as though the entire world was on his shoulders, a weight he just couldn’t support. And so the very emotional Lackey would try to work too fast and would lose his composure. Soon enough the lead the Angels had probably given him was gone. And that is exactly what happened last Friday. The one good thing that can be said of this Boston Massacre was that this has not happened to Lackey often this season. In just three starts this year he has given up 5 or more runs. Naturally it would be expected that an Ace stop such an event from happening altogether. One start, or three, however does not a season make.

Lackey has pitched so well this season for the most part this season by controlling his emotions. That is to say not letting them getting the best of him, there have been plenty of times this year where Lackey has had the bases loaded with no outs, and has avoided allowing a run to score. Historically John Lackey’s biggest problem on the mound has been his passion, yet can you truly fault a ballplayer for being passionate about the game that we, the fans, love so much as well. His passion is also his biggest strength.

And even after allowing seven runs in four innings (6 ER) on Friday, Lackey’s ERA this season is still a personal best for him, yet again. And after the Boston Massacre of last week, he dueled Andy Pettitte through 7 innings last night before ultimately losing. He kept his emotions and the Yankee lineup in check.

It seems that John Lackey has finally come into his own by being able to control his emotions when he needs to, yet still calling upon that fire when needed. And in the three horse race for the CY Young award, Lackey is definitely holding his own against the other CY favorites Dan Haren and Josh Beckett. He also stacks up pretty well next to the expanded field that also includes teammate Escobar, and other outside CY candidates like Johan Santana, Erik Bedard, and CC Sabathia.

It has been the history that whoever has the most wins in the league has a large advantage over the other pitchers in contention. Lackey and Beckett are currently tied for the most wins in the Majors with 15. Frankie Rodriguez has blown one save situation for which Lackey was to get the win, but the Angels came back and won in the bottom of the ninth. Another No Decision game was when Lackey and multiple CY Young Award Winner, Roger Clemens dueled in New York on the 7th of July. Both went 8 innings and gave up just one run. The Angels offense failed to score until Howie Kendrick scored on an error, the Angels winning in a drama filled 13 innings. Lackey was the man that night, using his passion, his fire, and his talent to equal the pitching of his fellow Texan, his idol, and possibly the best pitcher of the modern era, Roger Clemens.

As for Dan Haren, he is not playing for a team in contention for the playoffs, and that will most likely hinder his chances at winning the CY Young award. The A’s are not winning, and as they don’t win Haren remains stagnant at 13 wins, despite an admittedly stellar league-leading 2.74 ERA.

There are still approximately six starts for each of these pitchers left in the season, and the CY Young award is not the first thing Lackey will try to achieve. He will try to use his newfound status as the Angels Ace to lead the Angels into the playoffs, and ultimately the World Series. The Angels sport one of the American Leagues’ best starting staffs. But despite their depth, and the quality of their rotation, John Lackey has clearly stepped up to ascend the throne a few miles away from the Magic Kingdom. To become the number one starter in one of baseball’s best rotations, to become the Angels Ace.

Lackey will have to bring this mentality into tonight's game against the Mariners. Lackey is 2-0 against Seattle this season, and hasn't allowed a single earned run to the competing American League West team. Fortunately for the Angels Lackey has learned to bounce back from poor starts, as evident in his last outing against the Yankees. While Lackey did allow ten hits, he kept the team in the game by going seven plus innings. Lackey's strong competitive nature will be of the utmost importance against Miguel Batista, who currently sits on 13 wins. This series could make or break the season for the Halos, with Seattle only two games back. But this is the situation that an ace is supposed to be in.

Here’s to hoping that Lackey can attain number 16, and inch closer to a CY Young Award, while teammate Kelvim Escobar increased his chances with a HUGE performance and W against the Blue Jays yesterday.
Love to hear what you think!

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