Cubs

John Lackey will add more fuel to Cubs-Cardinals rivalry

John Lackey will add more fuel to Cubs-Cardinals rivalry

ST. LOUIS – Standing on the mound in front of a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium, John Lackey is a new scowling face of the Cubs, glaring at hitters and punctuating plays with a “F--- yeah!”

Standing in front of his locker surrounded by reporters, Lackey speaks softly in a Texas twang, which becomes harder to hear when the Cubs are pumping the dance music in the visiting clubhouse after a 5-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Monday night felt like a rivalry changing, even if the Cardinals won 100 games last year and still have 11 World Series banners flying above the video board in right field. It certainly wasn’t as dramatic as the Cubs eliminating the Cardinals from the playoffs and making them look like a team running on fumes last October. 

But the Cubs wanted Lackey’s edgy personality and big-game experience, grabbing him and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward away from the Cardinals as part of a spending spree that almost hit $290 million. That made Lackey’s response to Heyward’s reception in St. Louis – “I didn’t really notice it” – so classic.

“I’ve seen booed,” Lackey said. “That ain’t booed. That was a pretty soft boo.”

Yes, Lackey pretty much heard it all with the Boston Red Sox, coming back from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow to reshape his outside-the-clubhouse image and help beat the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series, part of a late-career renaissance that got him a two-year, $32 million deal this winter.    

“Honestly, I never heard from them” during the free-agent process, Lackey said, except for getting a qualifying offer from the Cardinals. “They went in a different direction. And I ended up in a great place.” 

Lackey (3-0, 3.66 ERA) didn’t give up a hit until the 12th batter he faced and needed only 91 pitches to zoom through seven scoreless innings, finishing with 11 strikeouts in a game that lasted only two hours and 32 minutes. 

The Cubs got on the board in the sixth inning when Dexter Fowler drilled a Mike Leake pitch an estimated 439 feet into the right-center field seats. The Cardinal Way is all about fundamentals and a next-man-up philosophy, but St. Louis looked shaky in the seventh, with Aledmys Diaz’ throwing error and Lackey’s RBI single contributing to a three-run inning.   

Manager Joe Maddon – who compared the Cardinals to “The Sopranos” and called for Simon the Magician to rally the troops after a three-game sweep in St. Louis last summer – framed it as the young Cubs needing to learn how to win and get over the mental block in St. Louis.

“In the beginning of (last) year, they out-experienced us,” Maddon said. “I said from the beginning: I thought we were as good as them, but they had a greater amount of experience than we did, and that really showed. 

“The addition of Jason and ‘Zo’ (Ben Zobrist) – and guys like (Anthony) Rizzo having a year under his belt, and (Kris) Bryant having a year under his belt – we’ve become more veteran.

“That matters a lot in a ballpark like this. When you’re (facing) a really active crowd and a very good team, you have to be able to think properly in the latter part of the game. 

“And I think we eventually caught up with them experience-wise by the end of last season.”

Is that getting in their heads in St. Louis? While the Cubs took batting practice, the Busch Stadium sound system played classical music – “Canon in D Major,” a piano song you’d hear at a wedding ceremony – before going silent.  

So assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske went inside and ran back out onto the field holding a portable speaker playing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Three minutes later, the pregame music suddenly turned back on, and the psychological tactics ended for the moment. Welcome back to Cubs-Cardinals.

Not that Lackey ever pays attention to the noise. He didn’t care that he’s now the only active pitcher with a win against every current major-league franchise. He didn’t wonder about the new balance of power between the Cubs (10-3) and Cardinals (7-6). Because he keeps score with World Series rings. 

“We’re getting too far ahead of ourselves on that one,” Lackey said. “We got a pretty good team here. Expectations are high. We’re embracing those and we’re shooting high. We’re OK with that. But it’s still early on. Let’s just play some baseball and see what happens.”  

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: