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Lackey Looks Like an All-Star

Baseball: Rookie outduels Perez and Angels beat Dodgers, 5-1.

July 01, 2002|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Lackey looked up at all the people, the thousands of Dodger fans yelling and the thousands of Angel fans yelling back. He had never pitched in front of this many people in his life. Yes, sir, this was gonna be fun.

Nervous? Intimidated? Maybe some other kid, but not this one.

"He's got that stare on his face," Angel reliever Ben Weber said after the Angels beat the Dodgers, 5-1, Sunday. "You can just look at him and tell he's not scared."

Lackey stared down the Dodgers, earning his first major league victory before a raucous sellout crowd of 43,059 at Edison Field. Lackey and Weber combined on a five-hitter, and Benji Gil hit a three-run home run, powering the Angels over All-Star pitcher Odalis Perez and the Dodgers.

The Angels took two of three games over the weekend, ending the Dodgers' run of nine consecutive series victories. But, on this first day of July, summer appears promising enough to allow local fans to dream of a Freeway Series in October.

The Dodgers lead the National League West by 1 1/2 games over the Arizona Diamondbacks, with another three games as a cushion in the wild-card race. And the Angels, shrugging off the conventional wisdom that they must win the American League West because the wild card will come out of the AL East, are one-half game behind the Boston Red Sox in the wild-card race and 3 1/2 games behind the Seattle Mariners in the AL West.

"We thought, coming into spring training, that we were good enough to take the division," Angel pitcher Jarrod Washburn said. "Now we've proven it, to ourselves and to other people."

Perez, selected to the NL All-Star team before Sunday's game, lost for the first time since May 24.

He held the Angels hitless for five innings. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, those innings were the third through the seventh, by which time the Angels led, 5-0. Of the first nine Angel batters, seven got hits.

Perez attributed the rocky start to mild tightness in his pitching arm.

"I was feeling like it wasn't me the first two innings," he said. "I came in and the trainer stretched me, and everything was better.

"My fastball wasn't there. When I was trying to throw strikes, I got hit."

Lackey did nothing but throw strikes, with better results. He gave up one run in six innings, striking out one but getting 12 of 18 outs on ground balls. Of his first 34 pitches, 26 were strikes.

"He threw great," Dodger Manager Jim Tracy said. "He threw strikes and pitched aggressively and forced us into a lot of early-count swings."

Said Weber: "Usually, kids come up and they're a little tentative, and they want to throw breaking balls. He just says, 'Here it is, hit it.' "

On the surface, perhaps, the Angels appear silly for throwing a rookie into their rotation in the heat of a pennant race. But he has been absolutely unruffled by circumstances that could rattle many a higher-paid pitcher.

In his major league debut last week, before friends and family in Texas and against a lineup featuring four potential Hall of Famers, Lackey held the Rangers to three runs over seven innings. On Sunday, before a sellout crowd and against the team that opened the series with the best record in the majors, Lackey shut out the Dodgers for the first five innings.

Then again, he played high school football in West Texas, before crowds of 25,000. Beach balls are not thrown there.

"His poise is a big reason why we feel he's ready for the challenge of the major leagues," Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Even with his experience, he'll pitch well beyond what you might think."

Sure, the Angels could trade for a veteran starter. The Detroit Tigers are shopping ace Jeff Weaver, and a Detroit scout watched Lackey and the Angels on Sunday.

"[Lackey's] got great makeup, and he's got great stuff," Angel pitcher Dennis Cook said. "Why not him?"

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