ST. LOUIS – “He didn’t come here for no f------ haircut, boys!” Jon Lester screamed inside Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, introducing John Lackey for Wednesday night’s postgame toast as the Cubs celebrated back-to-back National League Central titles.
Lackey waded into the middle of the mosh pit after his Big Boy Game, a 5-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals that eliminated the Milwaukee Brewers from the division race and again showed the defending World Series champs are ready for October.
The Cubs huddled around Lackey in a space that looked like something out of “Breaking Bad” with big plastic sheets taped up against the walls, creating a room within a room and sealing the party off from the lockers around the perimeter.
It got quiet for Lester, who won another World Series ring with Lackey as part of the 2013 Boston Red Sox and sees him much differently than the perceptions of the old cowboy bickering with umpires, throwing his hands up at infielders and firing off one-liners at reporters.
“I’ve had the pleasure to call this guy a teammate for eight years,” Lester said. “I’ve learned a lot about this game from this guy. And I’m sure you guys have, too. He’s one of the best teammates and one of the best people I’ve ever got to play with. Tonight was probably his last regular-season start. Here’s to one hell of a f------ career!”
With that, teammates sprayed beer all over Lackey, the Cubs back in their soaking-wet element after a 43-45 first half that looked like sleepwalking and a 46-24 sprint since the All-Star break. Lackey – the guy who promised he would never go on a David Ross-style retirement party – held up a handle of Crown Royal and poured the whiskey all over his face and down his throat.
The Cubs were feeling no pain, from Lester’s left shoulder to Jake Arrieta’s right hamstring to Lackey’s bubble status on any playoff rotation. There will be more than a week to break down how they match up against the Washington Nationals and where they could be vulnerable.
Bench coach Dave Martinez started the chant “11 more!” As in how many playoff wins before the Cubs can become the first team to win back-to-back World Series titles since the New York Yankees pulled off the three-peat in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
Here is one area where the Cubs will have a clear edge over the Nationals: The been-there, done-that confidence they showed in finishing this division race, the never-panic attitude created around those Yankees and the even-year San Francisco Giants.
“We’ve only got one ring,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “We’ve got some work to do on that before we can put ourselves with the Giants, with the Yankees. (But) the experience that we have together is huge. It’s comforting. It’s calming. It’s crazy.”
Arrieta understood what this meant as someone who got traded here from the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season, transformed into a Cy Young Award winner two years later and will cash in with a nine-figure megadeal this winter as a free agent.
“The front office has done a tremendous job of acquiring players and drafting players and developing those players,” Arrieta said. “If you do those three things successfully, you’re going to put a quality product on the field, year in and year out. That’s what I saw when I first got here, all these young players that were really close to being at the big-league level. Then in ’15, a bunch of these guys get there. And then in ’16, we add more.
“This could be – for a lot of the guys in here – a last go-round in this organization. And we’re going to do everything in our power to take advantage of it.”
Drenched in his blue NL Central T-shirt, blue shorts and Under Armour sandals, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein held a Budweiser can in one hand and a green bottle of champagne in the other, the relaxed picture of someone who doesn’t have to deal with 100-years-and-counting pressure anymore. But this was never going to be only about 1908. It doesn’t matter how they got there. The Cubs are coming now.
“It’s opportunity,” Epstein said. “I don’t know, but I assume people aren’t picking us to win the whole thing. That doesn’t really matter. Our guys love the adrenaline. They love big games. They love competition at the highest level, so it’s an opportunity to go out and make some history.”