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.”