Admit it, Cubs fans, part of you didn’t like the John Lackey deal, not after watching him pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals and hearing about his reputation with the Boston Red Sox.
Or at least Cubs Twitter didn’t automatically hail this as another genius move for Theo Epstein’s front office when Lackey’s two-year, $32 million agreement leaked before the winter meetings even started at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.
But Lackey has been exactly what the Cubs needed, a snarling personality on the mound and a stabilizing presence in the middle of their rotation. Plus that big-game experience should come in handy for a team that will wake up 20 games over .500 on Memorial Day.
Lackey shut down the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, throwing seven innings in a 7-2 victory that completed a three-game sweep of a big-market team in the early stages of a full-scale rebuild.
“We’re pretty good,” Lackey said. “There’s still a long way to go, but the potential to do something special is there, for sure. We just got to keep our head down, keep working at it. Don’t celebrate anything too quick. Just keep grinding.”
There really wasn’t much suspense for the holiday-weekend crowd of 41,575. Lackey (5-2, 3.16 ERA) had a seven-run lead with two outs in the seventh inning when he gave up his first and only run – a homer to Tyler Goeddel – and that now makes him 8-for-10 in quality starts in a Cubs uniform.
Just look at how much the Cardinals have missed Lackey’s ability to eat up innings, beginning Sunday with a 4.48 rotation ERA that ranked 11th out of the National League’s 15 teams and now falling 9.5 games behind the Cubs in the division.
The Cubs sensed the price of pitching would explode and pushed to close the deal with Lackey before Zack Greinke’s decision – and after David Price agreed to a seven-year, $217 million megadeal with Boston.
The Red Sox are a first-place team and Price has a 7-1 record – but with an ERA that’s still 5.34 after four straight quality starts and in a division that can be brutal for pitchers.
The Arizona Diamondbacks stunned the baseball world by signing Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million contract and making a blockbuster trade for Shelby Miller, a pitcher the Cubs discussed in depth with the Atlanta Braves.
Greinke is underperforming (6-3, 4.71 ERA), Miller (1-6, 7.09 ERA) just went on the disabled list with a finger injury that sounds more like an excuse for a mental break and the Diamondbacks are fighting to stay out of last place.
These are only snapshots, but the Cubs feel very comfortable paying for Lackey’s age-37 and age-38 seasons, knowing how much he wants a third World Series ring.
“Johnny Lackey is one of those guys – when you grab a lead, he’s almost the perfect pitcher,” manager Joe Maddon, “because he treats every inning like it’s zero-zero, and he just keeps going after you.”