PAWTUCKET – If a cortisone shot can put an injured pitcher on the road to recovery, then everyone can start forming a line behind John Lackey.
Since receiving an injection to quell the inflammation in his right elbow two weeks ago, Lackey has been able to make significant progress in his quest to return to Boston’s rotation. Tuesday’s minor-league appearance was just another step along the way, as Lackey looked the part of a major-league pitcher in Pawtucket’s 5-4 win over Norfolk in 11 innings. The big righty lasted 5 2/3 innings for the PawSox, giving up one run – a solo home run – on three hits while striking out four and not walking a batter.
“My elbow feels a lot better,” said Lackey, on the disabled list since May 16. “Cortisone’s a beautiful thing, I guess.”
Lackey threw 63 pitches in the outing, 46 of which were for strikes. Among those 63 pitches was a steady mix of fastballs, curveballs, sliders and changeups. The McCoy radar gun showed him topping out at 94 miles per hour with his fastball generally residing in the 91-93 range.
“I showed all my pitches. I’ve never been a huge velocity guy. I’ve got to locate things and work off of that,” Lackey said. “I was pitching like it was a regular game.”
Manager Arnie Beyeler mentioned during his pregame confab that the 32-year-old Lackey was slated to throw four innings/70 pitches. The script changed as Lackey benefited from a free-swinging Norfolk club that recorded six first-pitch outs. The round tripper also came on Lackey’s initial offering of the at-bat as Matt Angle clocked a 93 mph offering into the bleachers in right-center with two down in the third.
“Young guys like to hack when a big-league pitcher comes down,” said a smiling Lackey, who attacked the Tides with major-league baseballs, which has become standard procedure whenever a MLB pitcher rehabs.
Lackey then added that he felt encouraged that he was able to release his pitches “free and easy.” He required 19 pitches to set down the Tides in the first inning, which was the most he threw in a single frame.
“My arm was feeling good, but I definitely had to dial in as it relates to location, that’s for sure,” said Lackey.
The added bonus of seeing live batters in an actual game didn’t hurt either, according to Lackey. He last made a rehab start in 2009, when he had two starts for Angels’ Triple-A affiliate after starting that season on the D.L. with a strained forearm.
“This one’s not a whole lot different because I’m not going to be down here too long,” he said. “I’ve been on the D.L. before where you’re going to get two, three starts and you progress and work on different things. But today, I pretty much had to treat it like a real game.”
Lackey feels that he’s on track to return Sunday afternoon against Oakland at Fenway Park.
“I’m encouraged for sure,” Lackey said. “It’s up to [the front office] but I’d be ready to go.”
Brandon Duckworth followed Lackey, who was showered with a warm ovation by the sparse crowd of 3,181 when Beyeler made a pitching change in the sixth. A mixture of boos and cheers greeted Lackey when he was introduced prior to the game, which is something he clearly took notice of.
“There was a little bit of both to be honest,” said Lackey.
Duckworth surrendered a two-run home run to the second Tides hitter he faced, which was part of a 4 1/3-inning, three-run relief stint. Norfolk took a 4-3 lead in the top of the 11th but Hideki Okajima gave the PawSox hitters a chance after getting out of a first-and-third jam. Daniel Nava picked a fine time for his first home run, a solo shot to tie the game at 4-4.
The rally continued as Brent Dlugach singled and Luis Exposito, who blasted his first Triple-A home run in the fourth, reached on an error. A bunt by Jose Iglesias positioned runners at second and third and with two down Tony Thomas capped things off with a sharp single, scoring Dlugach.
Lackey muttered something to the effect of, “they’ve been sending you up and down a lot,” as he walked past Michael Bowden’s locker. Lackey does have a point, since Wednesday marked the end of Bowden’s second stint with Boston this month. At least the righthander appeared in a game before getting farmed out, which wasn’t the case in Bowden’s first call-up (May 18-21). On Monday the 24-year-old gave the parent club’s bullpen a break with two scoreless innings against the White Sox.
Bowden is well-versed regarding how the game is played. He still has options remaining, meaning there’s a good chance he’ll be the sacrificial lamb when the Sox make a move with their bullpen.
“I feel grateful that I’m the guy here that if they need somebody that they have faith in me to go up and help them out,” Bowden said. “I’m happy in the position I’m in. I came into the season expecting this. Whenever they need something or whenever I get the opportunity, I’m going to do whatever I can.”
If anything Bowden’s confidence has grown based on the faith Boston has already displayed.
“They’ve told me that they’re not afraid to call me up, and they’ve showed me that,” he said. “Just go down (to Pawtucket) and keep pitching and something will happen.”
EXTRA BASES: The caravan of pitchers with serious big-league credentials continues Wednesday night as Kevin Millwood will make his first start in a PawSox uniform. … Outfielder Darnell McDonald kicked off a rehab stint Wednesday, going hitless in three at-bats with a RBI. McDonald is on the D.L. with a strained left quad. … Former Bruins backup goalie and Lincoln resident Ross Brooks will throw out the ceremonial first pitch Wednesday, which is now a 6:05 start to accommodate Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. Fans are invited to hang around the ballpark after the game as the video board in right-center will remain on and show the Bruins-Canucks game, as will the video board on the terrace in left. Food and drink will also be provided. … First baseman Lars Anderson received the night off. … Matt Sheely collected his second multi-hit game in as many days. The outfielder was also picked off first base for the second consecutive day.