ST. LOUIS -- Chicago Cubs pitcher John Lackey says there were no hard feelings in his return to St. Louis on Monday, even though his former team wasn’t interested in retaining him for more than the qualifying offer they extended last winter. Still, Lackey wasn’t exactly treating this like any other game.
“I’ve been known to focus a little bit,” Lackey said after shutting out the Cardinals for seven innings in a 5-0 Cubs win. “I had a great time playing here. No hard feelings with that situation.”
Coincidence or not, Lackey saved his best game of his young Cubs career for his former teammates, who were baffled by the 37-year-old. Lackey struck out 11 while giving up just four hits and a leadoff walk to Matt Carpenter. He didn’t have to be reminded that he throws well at Busch Stadium, considering he produced a 1.93 ERA here last season.
“Not bad, huh?” Lackey asked rhetorically. “It’s a good pitchers' ballpark, especially as far as the division.”
The National League Central is up for grabs this season. The Cardinals have owned it the past few years. OK, more like the past few decades, but the Cubs are the favorites this year. Having said that, no one really believes the Cardinals are going anywhere. Last year at this time, they had the experience factor on the Cubs, though manager Joe Maddon believed his team had the talent to compete. Now the Cubs have what they need in all facets to challenge the Cardinals -- including two of their own from last season. Former Cardinal Jason Heyward helped Lackey with several sliding catches in right field, while the pitcher took care of the rest with his arm.
“He was on top of his game right there,” Maddon said. “Real quality pitches all night long. … Everything was working. Fastball velocity and command was very good. The ball was moving late.”
Lackey got late movement on arguably his best pitch of the night, a changeup to Carpenter, which he swung through to end the fifth inning with two men on. It was a beauty.
“I was fortunate to make a couple pretty good pitches and get out of it,” Lackey said nonchalantly. “You have to change things up. They know me pretty well and I know them pretty well. It’s a chess game in that regard, for sure.”
Though Lackey was consistent last season in a career-type year for the Cardinals, he has the feel of a big-game pitcher. Monday was as close as you’ll get to a big one in April, as it remained scoreless for five innings. But once the Cubs broke through for a run on a Dexter Fowler long ball, Lackey never looked back. How big of a win was it?
“We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves on that one,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”
But it did have meaning for him. He didn’t deny that.
“Maybe a little bit more, for sure,” Lackey said.
For his new team, it's getting a huge boost if this is the Lackey we’ll see moving forward -- big games or not. Remember, he came into the contest with a 5.68 ERA, though he was 2-0 thanks to tremendous run support.
“The first couple of games maybe not as sharp,” Maddon said. “He had his sharpness tonight.”
It showed on the mound, as Lackey kept his former team off-balance with a “good mix.” In doing so, he accomplished a rare feat: Lackey has now beaten every team in the majors. As per his laid-back style, he wasn’t very impressed when asked where that ranked in his career.
"I didn’t even know that,” he said. “I guess not that high.”