Lackey leads Cardinals with fire, experience
ST. LOUIS -- Distinguished by his Texas drawl, a fiery nature that has been known to occasionally even put teammates on notice and an October resume longer than any other active starter in the game, John Lackey turned back the clock on Friday night, giving Cubs manager Joe Maddon flashbacks to the young right-hander he saw up close in Anaheim and the Cubs fits in a 4-0 Game 1 win for the Cardinals to open the best-of-five National League Division Series.
A team that steered to a 100-win season without a true ace found one in Lackey on Friday, as the veteran right-hander, just two weeks shy of his 37th birthday, stymied a Chicago club that arrived at Busch Stadium on the high of a nine-game winning streak. In their first postseason game at Busch Stadium, the Cubs were bewitched by Lackey over 7 1/3 innings.
Lackey didn't allow a baserunner until the fourth. The Cubs didn't register a hit until the sixth. And only once with Lackey on the mound did Chicago move a runner into scoring position.
"That's how I saw him as a baby," marveled Maddon, who, 12 years ago, was a coach on an Angels team that clinched a world championship with a rookie by the name of John Derran Lackey throwing five strong innings in a Game 7 win.
Lackey has made many an October appearance since then, with Friday's outing marking his 19th career playoff start, most among all active pitchers. His postseason innings count ticked to 124 1/3 after he made it through the seventh inning of a postseason game for the fifth time in his career.
"I've been playing a while, and this is pretty much the only reason I'm still going," said Lackey, seeking his third championship ring with a third team. "I'm trying to win rings and trying to be part of something special as a team."
Lackey's name may not be included in conversations about the best pitchers in the game, but his sheet of October accolades shows him as someone who, perhaps too quietly, has emerged as one of the most decorated pitchers of this generation.
It's probably the only thing about him that's transpired quietly, too.
Maddon, after Friday's performance, described this 6-foot-6 Texan as being like John Wayne. Tommy Pham, whose eighth-inning pinch-hit home run padded St. Louis' lead, revealed that he calls his teammate O.G. -- shorthand for Original Gangster.
"He has that relentless attitude out there," Pham said. "You know, he's fearless."
And according to Carlos Villanueva, no one is spared from it. Said the Cardinals' reliever: "He yells at the umpire. He yells at us. He fights with Yadi. But he's got the fire in him, and you feed off it."
"Probably have to blame my parents for that," Lackey said, when asked about the fiery demeanor. "I think I've had that forever."
Tabbed to be the Cardinals' Game 1 starter after emerging as the club's most consistent pitcher over the past six months, Lackey had little trouble dispatching Chicago's pesky offense. After allowing 20 first-inning runs this season, he eased through the opening frame unscathed and went on to retire the first 10 he faced. A pair of double plays and a Randal Grichuk catch at the right-field wall helped him out of his only bit of trouble -- if it could even be considered such.
"I knew he would do well," said Stephen Piscotty, who punctuated the eighth with a two-run blast. "I didn't know he would do that well. That was special."
It was the sort of performance the Cardinals had in mind when they made Lackey an NL pitcher for the first time last summer. Acquired from Boston at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in 2014, Lackey has lived up to his billing as a big-game pitcher who has yet to find a stage too daunting.
It's why the Cardinals wanted him then and why they turned to Lackey now to set the tone in a series where 36 of the 40 NLDS Game 1 winners have gone on to advance to the next round.
"I think there is just something inside of him, a lot like what we've seen in the past in our staff from an Adam Wainwright and from a Chris Carpenter and on down the line," Matheny said. "These guys who want that role as being the one that sets the tone. When you get him into a big situation, he's not going to scare. You mix that with the kind of stuff he has right now, and he's a top-tier pitcher."