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Lackey on track — in life and on mound

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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BOSTON

Bonus notes from our MLB on FOX broadcast of the Yankees-Red Sox game on Saturday ...

Maybe John Lackey's season finally is starting to make sense.

Not only was Lackey hampered by elbow issues early in the year, but he also was trying to help his wife, Krista, in her fight against breast cancer.

Lackey refuses to use his wife's illness as an excuse, but he alluded to a personal issue after his ERA rose to 8.01 in Toronto on May 11, telling reporters, "Everything in my life sucks right now."

On Friday, Lackey explained to me what had happened.

"We thought the chemo this offseason was going to do it," he said. "Right around the start of the season, we found out she needed more."

Krista finished her latest treatment a few weeks ago and is doing "great," Lackey said. And Lackey, after receiving a cortisone shot in his elbow and spending nearly a month on the DL, is looking more like the pitcher who received a five-year, $82.5 million free-agent contract after the 2009 season.

His performance Saturday wasn't pretty, but Lackey survived major jams in the fourth and fifth innings to produce a quality start in the Red Sox's 10-4 victory over CC Sabathia and the Yankees.

Believe it or not, Lackey is 5-0 with a 3.58 ERA in his past six starts, averaging 7.4 strikeouts and 1.2 walks per nine innings. Prior to that, he was 5-8 with a 7.47 ERA, averaging 5.6 strikeouts and 3.4 walks per nine.

"It's a lot more fun to contribute," Lackey said.

And no doubt, a lot easier having peace of mind.

JETER: BETTER AGAINST RIGHTIES OR NOT?

Here is an example of how numbers don't always tell the entire story about a player or team.

When I asked Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long about Derek Jeter on Friday, he said Jeter's at-bats against right-handed pitching were the key to his turnaround.

"You see a substantial difference in what he's doing against right-handed pitching," Long said. "He was killing left-handers earlier, struggling against right-handers. Right now, there seems to be no difference."

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The numbers, however, do not support Long's view.

Jeter, prior to going on the DL with his calf injury, was batting .246 against righties, according to STATS LLC. Since his return on July 4, his average against righties is a mere .250. He went 3 for 3 off them in his five-hit game on Wednesday, but otherwise is 3 for 28 since July 24.

If anything, Jeter's platoon split has grown even larger since he came off the DL — he's 14 for 27 against lefties. But when I mentioned the numbers to Long at the batting cage Saturday, he did not waver in his belief that Jeter looks better against righties. And manager Joe Girardi agreed.

Long also had another theory.

"Tex (Mark Teixeira) and I talked about this — sometimes when you get away, you come back recharged," Long said. "I wouldn't be surprised if Alex (Rodriguez) came back and went on a bit of a tear.

"You're away from the game. You get a renewed hunger. As a baseball player, when that part is taken away, taken away because of injury, it makes you fight and feel that hunger again."

The Yankees also have shown fight as a team. They went 14-4 without Jeter and are 18-8 without Rodriguez.

ELLSBURY BUILDING HIS CASE

Funny how Red Sox manager Terry Francona volunteered during his in-game interview with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver that center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury was building a strong arbitration case.

Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz mentioned the same thing to me on Friday, stating emphatically that the team needs to "lock up" Ellsbury this offseason with a long-term deal.

Politely, I pointed out to Big Papi that Ellsbury's agent is Scott Boras, who prefers his clients to establish their values on the open market.

Ellsbury, who is earning $2.4 million this season, is eligible for arbitration twice more before hitting free agency. If he keeps this up, he will be in line for a free-agent contract similar to Carl Crawford's seven-year, $142 million deal — and the monster pact Jose Reyes is likely to sign this winter.

Then again, Ellsbury cannot possibly stay this hot, can he?

This week alone, he produced walk-off hits in consecutive games. Then, on Saturday, he became the first Red Sox leadoff hitter since Ellis Burks in 1987 to enjoy a six-RBI game.

Ellsbury ranks seventh in the AL with an .899 OPS and is tied for 10th with 72 RBI, even though he mostly bats leadoff. He also is tied for fourth with 52 extra-base hits — as many as Jose Bautista, one more than Robinson Cano.

THE AL MVP RACE

I know many fans are getting tired of hearing about the Red Sox and Yankees, but the amount of talent on these clubs is nothing short of stunning: The Sox and Yanks account for five of the top eight in the American League in OPS and eight of the top 16.

POLL

  • Who's the front-runner to win AL MVP?
    • Adrian Gonzalez
    • Jose Bautista
    • Curtis Granderson
    • Another player

Still, if I was picking my AL MVP today, I'd go with the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, the league leader in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage — and a player who has moved from right field to third base and back to right again according to the needs of his team.

I generally prefer my MVP candidates to play for contenders. I also lean toward up-the-middle defenders such as Ellsbury, Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson and Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is another terrific candidate, but I couldn't choose him or anyone else over Bautista. Let's not overthink this A lot can change in the final seven weeks, but Bautista is the front-runner.

A-GON'S EAST COAST BIAS

Gonzalez finds it almost amusing that he's batting .352 after hitting .277 and .298 in his final two seasons with the Padres.

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A-Gon attributes his spike in batting average almost solely to his move from the NL West to the AL East.

The difference, Gonzalez said, is fly balls that die in many of the West Coast parks carry for extra-base hits in the east.

Gonzalez's OPS-plus — that is, his combined on-base/slugging percentage adjusted to his league and ballpark — supports his contention.

His OPS-plus the past three seasons has been remarkably consistent even though his batting average since joining the Red Sox has increased dramatically.

LOOK OUT, NICK JONAS!

Entertainment updates usually are not part of "Extra Innings," but this week is an exception: Nick Swisher's album, "Believe," currently is the No. 3-ranked children's release on iTunes.

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Bernie Williams and Barry Zito played guitar on the album, and how's this for buttering up the commissioner? Bud Selig's granddaughter was among a group of children who sang backup vocals.

The Yankees actually played Swisher's version of "Lean on Me" as their victory song in Chicago on Thursday night. Swisher claims his teammates were "all ready to get all over me" when he made the album, but they eased up after hearing the actual songs and saying they were good.

Part of the proceeds from the album go to Swish's Wishes, Swisher's foundation for children with health issues.

YES, HE WAS HURTING

Pedroia was batting only .239 on June 4; since then, he's hitting .382. The difference? His surgically repaired left foot — his front foot as a hitter — is stronger.

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Pedroia admits now that his foot gave him problems early, especially when it was cold; he had a screw inserted into the foot last August to stabilize a broken bone.

The problem, Pedroia said, is that his swing is "real violent" on the front side. During those first two months, he said he couldn't feel his foot. But as it got stronger, the feeling returned and he started to drive the ball.

Early in the season, Pedroia said, "The worst part was running to my position (at second base). The running, the pounding; ... that was the part where I was like, 'Just shoot me.'"

SALT OF THE EARTH

A Red Sox executive who recalled scouts' criticisms of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia in spring training advised me to circle back to those scouts and see what they think now.

There is no need — Salty has improved in every aspect of his game. He ranks fifth in OPS among AL catchers with 200-plus at-bats, and his throwing of late has been particularly strong. Salty has thrown out six of his past 12 opposing base stealers; prior to that, he was 12 of 64.

Sox bullpen coach Gary Tuck, a noted catching instructor, left his home in Central Indiana to work last offseason with Saltalamacchia on the east coast of Florida.

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The Yankees' Jorge Posada, who went through "Camp Tuck" in 1995 when Tuck was with the Yankees, said the instructor "is the best ... he changed everything for me."

Saltalamacchia said he worked on every aspect of catching with Tuck — footwork, receiving, blocking. The drills, Salty said, were designed to make him into a defensive machine.

"He's playing the game at a slower pace," Tuck said. "The efficiency of his actions follows."

I asked Tuck if it was accurate that he worked two days a week with Saltalamacchia for much of the offseason, with each session lasting about 2 1/2 hours.

"At least two days a week," Tuck said, "depending upon my mood."

WADING JUST FINE

The Yankees' $203 million payroll is the game's highest, but not all of their players are big-money types.

Cory Wade, a right-handed reliever, started the season in the minors with the Rays. He had the right to opt out of his deal if he was not in the majors by June 15, and the Rays actually released him three days early so he could pursue other opportunities.

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The Rangers were interested, Wade said, but the Yankees made a stronger push. He signed a minor league contract and has since proven to be quite a find, producing a 1.86 ERA in 19 1/3 innings. Luis Ayala, another right-handed reliever who joined the team on a minor league deal, has a 1.51 ERA in 35 2/3 innings.

"What I'm proud about with this team is the people who have stepped up," Girardi said, specifically mentioning Wade, Ayala and infielder Eduardo Nunez.

SODA! ICE CREAM! POPCORN!

I didn't tell the whole story on the broadcast Saturday when sympathizing with the vendor who dropped beer bottles onto the field at Fenway, temporarily interrupting the game.

EAT YOUR HEART OUT

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As I mentioned to Joe Buck, I once worked as a vendor at Shea Stadium and the Nassau Coliseum in New York. Back then, anyone who spilled sodas or beers had to account for them with his or her own money.

How did I know that?

I once dropped an entire tray of sodas racing up the Coliseum steps to make a sale during an Islanders game.

I was 17 at the time, and it was terribly embarrassing. Evidently, these are more enlightened times: A Sox spokesman told the Boston Globe that the vendor would not have to pay for the beers.

Anyway, I have an even more vivid recollection from my days as a vendor — struggling Jets quarterback Richard Todd ducking out through our exit at Shea to avoid fans who were waiting to jeer him at the main gate.

Ah, memories . . .

Tagged: Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, Mets, CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter, John Lackey, Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, Nick Swisher, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Cory Wade

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