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Angels' John Lackey needs to post a victory

BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

It would be big for the Angels and it could mean big money for the pitcher in the off-season.

October 08, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN

The moment will live forever in Angels lore: John Lackey, four months removed from the minor leagues and four days after his 24th birthday, won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.

In the 2,538 days since then, Lackey has not won a playoff game.

This is his time to establish himself as an elite pitcher, on the eve of free agency. This is the night he ought to put the Angels on his back and carry them to victory.

Just win, baby.

"There's only so much you can do as a starting pitcher," he said to a small group of reporters Wednesday. "If I pitch up to my capabilities, I like my chances."

So true, and yet so unsatisfying.

This is about winning, not about a quality start. These were the final scores in Lackey's last five playoff starts: 3-2, 5-2, 4-0, 4-1, 3-2.

The Angels lost them all.

He pitched well, but not well enough, and yet this was his comment after the Boston Red Sox scored twice against him -- on a two-run home run -- in last year's playoff opener: "We've got to find a way to score some runs. It's pretty frustrating when one pitch can lose the game for you."

So true, and so frustrating.

Yet the legends of the fall are the ones who will their team to win. They are the ones who give up three runs if their team scores four, no runs if their team scores one.

Think Jack Morris, pitching 10 shutout innings in the 1991 World Series, stopping the Atlanta Braves until his Minnesota Twins could scrape for a run.

Think Cole Hamels last year. The Philadelphia Phillies didn't score much for him. These were the final scores in his five playoff starts last fall: 3-1, 3-2, 5-1, 3-2, 4-3.

The Phillies won them all.

I asked Lackey if he felt he could be that guy, if he felt the responsibility to be that guy.

"That's my role," he said. "I put more pressure on myself than anybody can put on me from elsewhere.

"Whatever needs to be done, I'll try to get it done for sure."

This is his time. This is the night. The Angels have played 14 consecutive postseason games against Boston without a victory from their starting pitcher. That was an unusual game too -- not that John Candelaria won, but that Gary Pettis and Dick Schofield each hit a home run.

But that goes back to 1986, and that history is not something the Angels need rehashed after another Game 1 loss to Boston.

"Someone in their rotation must show shutdown capability," former Boston pitcher Curt Schilling wrote Wednesday on his blog.

"It's a staff-wide thing. If they get pounded in Game 1, that stuff steamrolls a rotation. . . . Game 1 is going to be huge in either enforcing or changing the 'here we go again' mentality."

The Angels aren't about to put this all on Lackey.

"I don't think he should put everything on his back," outfielder Torii Hunter said. "Just keep us close and keep us in the game."

Manager Mike Scioscia said Lackey does not need this postseason to prove he is a big-game pitcher.

"I think John has already laid down some pretty good footprints, with all the big games he has pitched in," Scioscia said.

"Not many guys come up and start Game 7 of the World Series as a rookie."

It is in the Angels' best interest for Lackey to win tonight, and it is in his own best interest too.

Free agency beckons this fall, so I asked super-agent Scott Boras what a super October might mean for Lackey, in terms of dollars.

"It's something that's frankly nearly impossible to calculate," said Boras, who does not represent Lackey. "The biggest factor is the need of the team. Then you go to the age of the player.

"My feeling with John is that his biggest asset is his durability. His postseason performance has largely been against one team [the Red Sox]. That has not been his best matchup."

Durability? That is the first word you use to describe an innings-eater, not an ace.

Win a few games this October, and Lackey, who turns 31 in two weeks, could be well on his way to $100 million. Kevin Brown, a Boras client, parlayed back-to-back October runs into the first $100-million contract in baseball history, from the Dodgers.

Barry Bonds was Superman in the 2002 playoffs, and even he couldn't carry the San Francisco Giants past the Angels. But consider the worth of an ace, a guy like Hamels who could get four or five of the 11 postseason victories necessary to win the World Series.

"That ability certainly has an added value," Boras said. "The pitcher has the ability to dominate the game in his own right. From that sense, the postseason performance record for pitchers is looked at more definitively as increasing value."

Scioscia scoffed at the notion that teams might evaluate Lackey this October before deciding whether to bid for him, or how high to bid.

"I don't think John is auditioning for anything," Scioscia said.

That W by his name in the box score, that can't hurt. This is his time. This is the night.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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