Experience helping Lackey thrive

Experience driving Lackey's renaissance

CHICAGO -- Talk about upward mobility.

John Lackey was on the Angels' playoff roster in 2004, but the Angels were swept out of the American League Division Series by the Boston Red Sox and he was the No. 4 man on the totem pole, so he didn't pitch.

Things have changed drastically since then.

Lackey had a breakout year in 2005 with a career-best record (14-5) and a career low in ERA (3.44), and he became the Angels' de facto No. 2 starter behind Bartolo Colon. When the playoffs started, he pitched Game 2 of the ALDS against the Yankees, and when Jarrod Washburn got strep throat, Lackey shined in Game 4 on three days' rest.

And then, through even more attrition -- namely the shoulder inflammation that knocked Colon out of Game 5 of the ALDS in the second inning and forced the Angels to leave him off the AL Championship Series roster -- the big Texan got another promotion.

Meet John Lackey, Angels ace.

Lackey -- at 26, a salty veteran of postseason baseball -- will get the ball for Game 3 of the ALCS against the White Sox when the venue shifts to Southern California on Friday night. And if the Angels make it to the World Series and Colon can't pitch -- a Wednesday MRI revealed a strain in the back of his right shoulder -- Lackey might open the Fall Classic in Anaheim.

When asked about that possibility, Lackey shrugged it off.

"In the playoffs, I don't think it really matters what your number is," Lackey said. "Every time somebody [pitches], they're No. 1 that night. All the games are important, and I don't think I'm going to put any added pressure on myself."

Not that he wouldn't be able to handle it. Lackey likes to say he's "seen some things" in his career, and it's hard to argue that point.

Lackey became the first rookie in 93 years to win Game 7 of the World Series when he pulled the trick for the Angels in 2002 against the San Francisco Giants.

And after two years of adjustment to the big leagues, Lackey found his groove in 2005, finishing with 199 strikeouts, which ranked third in the AL, and pitching a career-high 209 innings.

"John Lackey's evolution as a pitcher has been happening over the last three or four years," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "I think from pitching Game 7 in 2002 of the World Series and winning that game, his expectations were off the chart as far as what he thought he needed to do.

"He thought he had to go from winning that game to Cy Young Award winner the next year or he wasn't progressing the way he feels he should. He's a very confident pitcher. He's had some bumps in the road. He's made some great adjustments. This year, probably outside of his first handful of starts ... he's been arguably our best pitcher."

One of the main adjustments was a slight attitude renovation earlier this year after he started off slowly. Lackey met with pitching coach Bud Black and Scioscia behind closed doors and the three discussed Lackey's need to not let his frustrations show on the mound, that such outward displays were leading to bad innings.

"I think the main thing is he's calmed his emotions down a little bit," Angels reliever Scot Shields said. "Sometimes in the past, a hit or a run scored, he would kind of lose control a little bit and I think that's been the big thing, is him maturing and learning how to pitch and letting something go.

"If a guy gets a base hit, basically, just let it go and worry about the next guy. I think he's using his changeup a lot more, and that's keeping guys off his fastball and his curveball."

When asked what the main difference has been, Lackey didn't hesitate to answer.

"I would just say experience," he said. "I think more so understanding my pitches, understanding when to throw certain things, and understanding game situations better is what I've matured at the most, understanding that there could be one or two spots in a game that can mean a game, and you've really got to lock in and make pitches in those situations."

And now he's come full circle and he's most likely the Angels' ace for the rest of the way.

"I'm going to go out there and get after it," Lackey said.

"Like I always do."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.