Lackey has Boston on a short leash
John Lackey had his bark and his bite Friday, earning a rare victory over the Boston Red Sox in a game that he might later remember for more than being the night he recorded his 1,000th career strikeout.
Angels Manager Mike Scioscia affectionately calls Lackey his lead dog, the pitcher who sets an example for the rest of the staff not only with his numbers but his effort.
Lackey had struggled against the Red Sox throughout his career, losing six of his first seven decisions and compiling a 6.27 earned-run average in his first 12 career appearances against them.
And that doesn’t count a six-inning outing in a loss to the Red Sox in last season’s American League division series, in which he gave up four runs and nine hits in the first loss of what would be a Boston sweep.
“It’s obvious these guys have been a challenge,” Scioscia said of Lackey’s troubles with the Red Sox. “They’re a challenge for a lot of guys.”
Lackey conquered that challenge Friday, helped by a superb infield defense that was everywhere and turned two double plays behind him to ease him out of jams.
The right-hander overcame a couple of misplaced pitches and lasted seven innings of the Angels’ 11-3 rout of the Red Sox at red-drenched Angel Stadium.
Though Scioscia said before the game that Lackey didn’t have to make any kind of statement with his performance, it sounded like one, anyway. Lackey (7-2) gave up three runs and five hits while striking out six, getting some breathing room only when the Angels scored four runs in the fifth and three in the sixth.
The second of his strikeouts was the 1,000th of his career, a fourth-inning foul tip by Kevin Youkilis on a curve ball.
That proved something about Lackey’s resolve too, because Youkilis had slammed a two-run home run in the second inning -- and Youkilis had come to bat in the fourth as the second batter after Manny Ramirez had tied the score, 3-3, by launching a home run deep into the right-center field seats.
Lackey liked reaching 1,000 strikeouts so much that he started on the next 1,000, getting Sean Casey on a called third strike to end the inning.
“It’s a long way from Nolan,” Lackey said, referring to Nolan Ryan’s major league record of 5,714 strikeouts.
Asked what he had done differently to change the pattern of his struggles against the Red Sox, Lackey assumed a serious expression.
“Let’s talk about tonight. How about that?” he said.
“It was great tonight. The guys scored a ton of runs and gave me room to work,” he said. “It was nice to pitch well after a couple of not-so-good ones in a row.”
In his previous start, on July 10, he gave up 15 hits -- that’s not a typo -- and six earned runs over 5 2/3 innings but didn’t get a decision in an eventual 11-10 Angels victory over Texas. Before that, on July 5, he gave up eight hits and five earned runs over six innings of a 7-5 loss to Toronto.
Scioscia praised Lackey’s aggressiveness, saying Lackey’s 3-and-1 fastball to Youkilis was not quite located where Lackey had wanted and that the first-pitch homer by Ramirez wasn’t quite away enough.
“Outside of that, he pitched terrific baseball,” Scioscia said. “That’s a deep lineup there and they’re going to make you work for outs. They can hit the ball out of any part of the ballpark as they showed tonight.
“Once John got his feet settled and got to the middle innings, his breaking pitches really came to life and he pitched a good game.”
Although Lackey said it would be “a little sticky” to read too much into one victory, it could turn out to be important for its psychological value to him and to the Angels.
Lackey hadn’t beaten the Red Sox since July 30, 2006, a six-inning, three-run outing in a 10-4 Angels victory. He was 0-2 against them last season, with an ugly 8.38 ERA.
For the Angels to have any hope of going deep in the playoffs, Lackey has to be able to beat the Red Sox. He must know that and the Red Sox must know it too.
The Angels aren’t going to enjoy many sprees like Friday’s 14-hit extravaganza. Pitching will be the heart of everything they do, along with the alert, crisp defense they played Friday.
Lackey must be a big part of that.
Since their 2002 World Series triumph, the Angels have been a good regular-season team but a so-so playoff team. They were swept by Boston in the 2004 ALDS, beat the Yankees in the 2005 ALDS but lost to the eventual World Series champion White Sox, and were swept by Boston last October.
If they’re going to last more than one round or two, Lackey must take charge and do what the lead dog should do:
Lead by example and with a fierce refusal to lose, as he did Friday.
Helene Elliott can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.