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.”  

It looks like rough times are ahead for Brewers relief ace Josh Hader

It looks like rough times are ahead for Brewers relief ace Josh Hader

The Brewers' best pitcher is in some serious hot water before the second half of the MLB season gets underway.

As he was serving up a 3-run homer in the All-Star Game Tuesday night, Josh Hader's Tweets from 2011 were aired publicly and the result was...not good.

Hader's Tweets as a 17-year-old reflected racist and homophobic remarks, among other issues. (A summary of his Tweets can be found at Deadspin.)

After the All-Star Game, Hader was immediately put in front of reporters to respond to the Tweets and admitted he will accept any punishment that comes his way — including any possible suspension:

He won't be suspended by the league and will instead under go sensitivity training, but this absolutely could affect Hader mentally moving forward. 

Case in point:

He can ask teammate Ryan Braun how to deal when fans turn on you, but it's going to be a lot more difficult for a 24-year-old in his first full big-league season to deal with any hate that comes down. 

Hader has been the Brewers' most valuable pitcher all season, going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and a ridiculous 16.7 K/9. 

But over the last month-plus, he's been...human.

Ever since Jason Heyward turned on a 98 mph Hader fastball to tie the game in Milwaukee on June 11, the Brewers' relief ace has a 2.84 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 13.5 K/9.

Still great numbers, to be sure, but not the Superman-esque line baseball fans came to expect from Hader after the first couple months of 2018. (Plus, the All-Star Game homer he served up to Jean Segura, but that obviously doesn't count for anything.)

With the Brewers already chasing the Cubs by 2.5 games in the division in the second half, they can't afford Hader's slump to worsen.

Though Cubs fans may be rooting for that...

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.

But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.

“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”

Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.

“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”

Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.

And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.

“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”

The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.

“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”

That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.

But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.

“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.

“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”

It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.

The only thing that was missing? The ball.

Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.

“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.

We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.