It is a responsibility John Lackey relishes. With the rotation plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness and at times crumbling around him, the veteran right-hander has been a rock, the one starter on which the Angels can always rely.
"This guy pitched Game 7 [of the World Series] his first year in the big leagues. He's used to the pressure, of having things on his shoulders, and that's big for the young guys we have on the staff."
Though Lackey has had numerous counseling sessions with the team's rookie pitchers, he prefers to lead by example, the way he did in Saturday night's 5-1 victory over Baltimore in Camden Yards.
One night after the Orioles pummeled the Angels for 16 runs and 19 hits, Lackey gave up one run and seven hits in seven innings, striking out six and walking one, to improve to 8-5 and earn his 99th victory. He is 5-1 with a 1.89 ERA in his last seven starts.
"John takes pride in being the stabilizer," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "When he's on the mound, he gives us a chance to win. He does that as well as anyone in the game."
Lackey showed no adverse effects from the career-high 131 pitches he threw in his last start. If anything, he says he believes he has added a little velocity, the result of throwing more four-seam fastballs instead of two-seam, sinking fastballs.
"I've been locating the four-seam fastball well, and it has some life on it," Lackey said. "A well-located heater is probably the best pitch in the game. When you get into tight spots, you don't want to give up runs and hits on secondary pitches."
Lackey's only blemish Saturday was the third-inning run he gave up on Adam Jones' triple and Nick Markakis' double. He was in a tight spot in the fifth inning, but with a runner on third base and one out, he struck out Markakis with a fastball and got Aubrey Huff to pop out.
Lackey sat out the first six weeks of the season because of a forearm strain, but he has rebounded so well he is drawing comparisons to 2007, when he had a 19-9 record with a league-leading 3.01 ERA and finished third in voting for the AL Cy Young Award.
"He's throwing the ball as good as I've seen him," Mathis said. "He's locating that heater, and the ball is coming out firm. He's just back into that groove, and his arm is getting stronger.
"He also works his [tail] off between starts. That's big, because the young guys watch what he does out there and what he does between starts. He goes about it the right way."
The Angels bunched all of their runs in the third, an inning in which they managed three hits, all singles, but took advantage of three walks by rookie left-hander Brian Matusz (1-2) and an error.
Chone Figgins drew a one-out walk and advanced to second base on Erick Aybar's single to right field. Bobby Abreu walked to load the bases, and Vladimir Guerrero laid off an outside full-count pitch for a walk, forcing in a run.
Juan Rivera lined a single to center field to drive in Aybar. Abreu was held at third base, but when center fielder Jones bobbled Rivera's hit for an error, Abreu scored, and the other two runners advanced.
Howie Kendrick grounded out to shortstop to knock in another run, Rivera holding at second base. Robb Quinlan singled to right field to drive in Rivera, who avoided catcher Matt Wieters' tag with a nice hook slide that made it 5-0.
That was more than enough support for Lackey.
"That's a great effort by John -- he really showed what he does best," Scioscia said. "He was in and out all night, he had a good breaking ball, and he put guys away when he had opportunities."