Cubs

Lackey's 'country hardball' leads to 11 strikeouts in win over Nationals

Lackey's 'country hardball' leads to 11 strikeouts in win over Nationals

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.”

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

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Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.