Despite pitching on three days' rest because of a late-breaking throat infection that left scheduled starter Jarrod Washburn laid up in his hotel room with a 102-degree fever, the big Angels right-hander was cruising along.
Through five innings, he shut down the juggernaut that is the New York Yankees, hitting corner after corner with his fastball and dropping a sharp curveball into the strike zone seemingly at will.
The only problem was the Yankees' righty, Shawn Chacon, was doing the same thing.
So when Lackey gave up a Gary Sheffield RBI single with two out in the sixth to cut the Angels' hard-fought lead to 2-1, manager Mike Scioscia came to the mound with a particularly unwelcome hook.
Scot Shields got out of the sixth but gave up two runs in the seventh, the Angels lost the game, 3-2, and were forced to go back to Anaheim to try to win a deciding Game 5 on Monday night.
"Not to take anything away from Scotty, because he's had a great year, but you like to be the one making pitches when the game's on the line," Lackey said. "I felt like I pitched well enough to decide that game for us."
The numbers supported that statement.
Lackey gave up the one run on two hits in his 5 2/3 innings, struck out six batters and had the Yankees mystified at the plate.
It was reminiscent of his masterful performance in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, when Lackey was similarly called on to work on three days' rest and beat the San Francisco Giants with five innings of one-run ball.
But in that game, the Angels had a 4-1 lead when he departed. This time it was too close for Scioscia's comfort, even though Lackey had thrown only 78 pitches.
"When John got into that little trouble in the sixth, really it was more of a by-product of letting Scot come in with enough leeway than really thinking John didn't have a couple more pitches in him," Scioscia said.
"John was throwing the ball well but getting into that area where [one tires] on three days' rest. He might have had 10 pitches in him, but he was most likely not going to start the next inning."
There wasn't much room for error because of Chacon, who pitched a perfect first three innings and didn't give up a hit until a Vladimir Guerrero infield single in the fourth. Chacon was spotless until a leadoff walk, a sacrifice bunt and consecutive doubles by Chone Figgins and Orlando Cabrera gave the Angels a 2-0 lead.
Scioscia said Lackey's displeasure with being yanked was nothing he hasn't seen before.
"John's never happy to come out of a game," Scioscia said. "At times, he's thrown 115 pitches and he still doesn't want to come out of the game. That's part of his makeup."
Another part of his makeup is how solid he's become as he's matured.
After so much success in 2002 as a 23-year-old who was called up to the big leagues in late June, Lackey struggled in 2003 and 2004, when he developed a penchant for giving up the big inning and showing his frustrations on the mound.
He demonstrated flashes of that early this year but righted himself after an April meeting with Scioscia and pitching coach Bud Black. He went 8-1 after the All-Star break and posted a 14-5 record and a 3.44 ERA to go along with 199 strikeouts, the third-highest total in the AL.
On Sunday, he continued his growth with another stellar effort. It didn't go unnoticed, particularly by Shields, who said he took full responsibility for the loss.
"John pitched his [butt] off," Shields said. "Going into it, he wasn't supposed to pitch, and he went out and dealt. And I didn't save it for him. I just didn't do my job."
Lackey managed to be relatively philosophical about the Angels' chances to take the series Monday night and advance to the AL Championship Series against the Chicago White Sox, particularly because they'll be starting 21-game winner Bartolo Colon.
"We're at home and we've got a pretty good guy on the bump," Lackey said.
"We'll be OK."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.