John Lackey struck out 11 hitters for the second time this season Friday.
He had a slightly different way of describing it:
“We’re going to play a little country hardball and figure it out.”
The “country hardball” was working well for Lackey, who punched out nearly a dozen Washington Nationals in the Cubs’ 8-6 win at Wrigley Field, matching a season high in whiffs and earning his fourth win of the year.
After surrendering a pair of early runs, Lackey settled in nicely, allowing just two hits in his final five innings of work. Getting a ton of assistance from his offense certainly helped, the Cubs digging out of that early 2-0 hole by bashing four home runs against Nationals ace Max Scherzer.
Given Scherzer’s fate, Lackey’s performance on a day when the ball was soaring out of the Friendly Confines was particularly impressive. So too was his second 11-strikeout game of 2016 after not reaching that number in any game last season with the Cardinals.
“It was definitely a day for the hitters. A little warmer, wind blowing the other direction. It was a tough challenge today, for sure, with a good lineup, and I was fortunate to get a few strikeouts,” Lackey said. “You never know with the fly ball when things are like that around here.
“You’re going to have to miss some bats in this ballpark, especially later on in the summer when it warms up. Obviously it’s not a great place to pitch some days when the wind’s blowing out. It can play pretty small. Today I was fortunate.”
The Cubs’ hitters will take the headlines and make the highlight shows, an unsurprising result when Ben Zobrist hits four homers in three games and the Cubs boast a mind-boggling plus-98 run differential.
But that run differential and the Cubs’ success in general — 22 wins in their first 28 games of the season — wouldn’t be possible without elite pitching. Jake Arrieta’s credentials are well known, as are Jon Lester’s, and Jason Hammel has dazzled, too, with a 1.24 ERA.
Lackey has maybe seemed the odd man out with an ERA north of 4.00, but he’s shone in more than half his starts this season. In fact, he’s finding the confines at Wrigley to be quite friendly, owning a 2-0 record and a 2.49 ERA in three home starts. He’s gone at least seven innings in three of his last four starts and has a team-high 40 strikeouts on the season.
Make no mistake, every piece of this five-man rotation is pulling his weight, and Lackey is no exception.
“I’ve been in a few rotations, I try to handle my own business,” Lackey said. “We definitely root for each other hard. Jake’s on another level right now doing his thing. It’s a great group, it’s a fun group to hang out with and we work hard in the weight room, push each other. And then whoever’s day is that day, I’m their biggest fan, and I hope everybody does well.”
Lackey also became the fifth active pitcher to reach 2,000 career strikeouts, an achievement he chalked up to being old.
“I guess it means I’m old and been around a while, done a few things.”
The truth is that Lackey has “done a few things,” and it’s why he’s here. Theo Epstein’s front office brought Lackey in this winter because of his pedigree, which includes a pair of World Series rings and a dominating performance against this very Cubs lineup in Game 1 of last year’s NLDS.
Lackey signed on for the same reason the other big-name free agents did this offseason: This Cubs team has a chance to make his jewelry collection even more impressive.
With the Cubs owning the title of baseball’s best team almost 30 games into this season, is it time to start comparing this group with Lackey’s past title-winning squads?
“It’s a little early to get too crazy,” Lackey said. “Let’s play a little baseball.”