In manager Tom Kotchman's 31-year tenure in the Minor Leagues, he has only seen two pitchers so competitive that they have refused to come out of the game.
The first time was in 1983 when rookie Roger Clemens, playing for the Winter Haven Red Sox, told Kotchman if he left him in the game Clemens could end the contest in three pitches. And the future seven-time Cy Young award winner did just that, a testament not only to his talent, but to his competitive nature.
It was 16 years before Kotchman witnessed that same fire on the hill, this time from 20-year-old rookie John Lackey.
The Angels' second-round pick in '99, Lackey's first stop was with Kotchman's Boise Hawks. The veteran manager still remembers one particular game when he tried to replace Lackey only to have the tall Texan tell him otherwise. Sure enough, Kotchman trotted back to the dugout and Lackey kept dominating, as if to say, "See? I'm not done yet."
Point taken for Kotchman, who never signaled to the bullpen first when Lackey was on the mound that season, a rare display of assurance from a Minor League manager with more than 1,500 career wins.
"One important trait that [Clemens and Lackey] have in common is that they are competitors," Kotchman said. "It's probably an overused word. [On my report on] one of the players I drafted last year and signed ... it says, 'He competes like John Lackey.'"
And in the Angels organization, that's one heck of a compliment.
Following his successful debut season in Boise, where Lackey went 6-2 with a 2.98 ERA in 15 starts, the ace-in-the-making opened the 2000 season with Class A Cedar Rapids. Lackey went 3-2 with a 2.08 ERA in five starts and sped through the Halos' Minor League teams, making stops at Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore and Double-A Erie.
Everywhere Lackey went, he made an impression. Not only was his 6-foot-6, 245-pound presence daunting on the hill, but Lackey's arsenal of top-end pitches consistently overpowered Minor League hitters.
And then there was that look; so serious and driven that current Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu still remembers it nearly a decade after helming Erie in 2000.
"I would go out there [to the mound] and, man, he would stare you down, which is good," Wakamatsu said.
When Lackey gave up a rare home run, Wakamatsu would watch even closer, wondering what the young right-hander -- who he dubs one of the toughest mental players he's ever seen -- would do the next time he faced that batter.
"He would throw the exact same pitch just to prove that he could beat him," Wakamatsu said. "Guys like that find a way to win."
And with the wins came the promotions and the accolades. Lackey was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2000 and was the Pacific Coast League's 2002 Pitching Prospect of the Year after posting an 8-2 record with a 2.57 ERA for Triple-A Salt Lake.
However, those distinctions would become an afterthought on Oct. 27, 2002, when Lackey became just the second rookie in baseball history to win Game 7 of the World Series. Lackey allowed only one earned run on four hits while striking out four in five innings, allowing the Angels to hand an early 4-1 lead over to the bullpen trio -- Brendan Donnelly, Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival -- that would seal their World Series title.
Kotchman remembers the pregame chatter around the league, particularly in the Minors, about starting Lackey -- a 23-year-old who had just 18 regular-season games under his belt heading into the playoffs.
Could a rookie really handle starting Game 7 of the World Series? Kotchman never doubted it.
"He ain't a normal rookie," Kotchman said then.
It's a fact he reasserts now.
"[Lackey] wasn't intimidated," he said. "Obviously, [for] Game 7 everybody's going to have some type of nerves, but there's things on a scouting report you can't gauge enough of. And he's got that [x-factor].
"There are certain guys that don't accept mediocrity which translates into, 'I want the ball'," Kotchman said. "He just didn't accept mediocrity."
It's a trait just as true now as it was 10 years ago.
Minor League career breakdown
1999: Following the Draft, Lackey was assigned to Rookie-level Boise. In 15 starts, he went 6-2 with a 4.98 ERA and notched his first professional complete game.
2000: Lackey started the season with the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels before receiving successive promotions to Class A Advanced and Double-A. He posted a combined 15-9 record with a 3.15 ERA and was named the Angels' Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
2001: After going 9-7 with a 3.46 ERA for Double-A Arkansas, Lackey struggled at the Triple A-level, posting a 3-4 record and a 6.71 ERA.|
2002: In his final full season in the Minors, Lackey rebounded to go 8-2 with a 2.57 ERA for the Salt Lake Stingers.|