While the rest of the rotation -- Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders -- crumbles around him, John Lackey has been a block of granite, the one starter the Angels can rely on to go deep into games and shut down an opponent.
The veteran right-hander gave the Angels what they need -- and expect -- from a staff ace Wednesday, giving up one run and three hits in seven innings, striking out eight and walking four, in a 9-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians at Angel Stadium.
Second baseman Howie Kendrick, whose offensive struggles got him demoted to triple-A Salt Lake in June, knocked in a career-high five runs with a single in the first inning, a two-run single in the fifth and a two-run home run in the seventh.
But the tone for the afternoon was set on the mound, where Lackey served notice that while the Angels would love to acquire front-of-the-rotation starter Roy Halladay from Toronto before Friday’s trade deadline, they still have an ace in their deck.
“That’s what has made John so special for us over the years,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “He’s the lead dog, he wants to be the guy. He’s focused every start, and his intensity carries over.
“He wants to stop a losing streak or keep a winning streak going. He wants the team to think that when he takes the mound, they’re going to win that day, and he’s on a good roll right now.”
Indeed, Lackey (7-4) has won four consecutive starts and is 5-1 with a 2.32 earned-run average in his last seven starts. He has thrown seven innings or more in 10 of his last 12 starts.
“There’s definitely a need for me to pitch some innings and to pitch well right now,” Lackey said. “The innings I’ve given us have helped more than anything.”
Starting pitching has been an Angels strength for several years, but the rotation, with the exception of Lackey, has wilted this summer.
Santana, an All-Star in 2008, has struggled to recover from elbow problems and is 3-6 with a 7.29 ERA in 11 starts. Saunders, also an All-Star in 2008, is 3-5 with a 6.31 ERA in his last 14 starts. Weaver has a 7.35 ERA in his last eight starts.
“I’m not concerned,” Lackey said. “We have some proven guys here, a couple of All-Stars, and Weav should have been an All-Star this year. Guys just have to start pitching to their capabilities, and we’ll be fine.”
Lackey hasn’t been dominant all year. He sat out the first six weeks because of a forearm strain and was 1-2 with a 6.61 ERA in his first six starts before turning his season around.
If the Angels are to hold off Texas and win the American League West, his fellow starters must follow suit.
“I had my stretch when I came off the DL, too, it happens,” Lackey said of his early struggles. “I’ve talked to guys. I encourage guys. It’s something you have to figure out personally. You have to find the best solution.
“Once you have a few years in the big leagues you have to be your own pitching coach. You have to be an honest evaluator about how you’re pitching and make some corrections.”
Lackey’s only blemishes on career win No. 98 were the walks, two hit batsmen and Jhonny Peralta’s fourth-inning sacrifice fly, which trimmed the Angels’ lead to 2-1.
But the Angels, who have won 10 of 12 games, broke the game open with five runs in the fifth inning, a rally that featured Bobby Abreu’s run-scoring single, Kendry Morales’ run-scoring double and Kendrick’s two-run single.
Morales and Kendrick also had run-scoring singles in the first inning, and Kendrick hit his sixth home run of the season, a two-run shot to right-center field against reliever Tony Sipp, in the seventh.
Lackey stifled potential rallies by striking out Travis Hafner looking with two on to end the sixth inning and Asdrubal Cabrera looking with two on to end the seventh.
“My strength, stamina and command are all coming together at once,” Lackey said. “That’s for sure.”