PHOENIX — John Lackey already had his scowl going in the first inning on Thursday night, yelling and pounding his glove with the intensity Cubs fans once loved to hate.
They had chanted “LACK-EY, LACK-EY!” at Wrigley Field last October, when the big-game pitcher tried to go on short rest and the Cubs eliminated a St. Louis Cardinals team that appeared to be running on fumes.
The Cubs are betting Lackey — at the age of 37 and more than four years removed from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow — still has plenty left in the tank as their No. 3 starter behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester.
The Cubs are also trying to bash their way back into the playoffs with a nonstop lineup that looks so much better than last year’s version, which might have already tilted the balance of power in that rivalry with St. Louis.
The Cubs put up a football score in this 14-6 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo matched his career high with six RBIs. Leadoff guy Dexter Fowler continued his hot start (7-for-12, 13 total bases). New additions Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist combined for five walks and six runs scored.
“The story is about the offense, man,” Lackey said. “These guys can swing it. Fourteen runs, airtight defense, I’ll take care of the rest.”
Coming off a season-opening, two-game sweep where they outscored the Los Angeles Angels 15-1, the Cubs knocked out Rubby De La Rosa in the fourth inning and wore down Arizona’s bullpen, generating 14 hits and drawing 10 walks.
The Cubs needed that on a night where Kyle Schwarber rode off the field in an ambulance cart and Lackey didn’t quite look like the guy who put up a 2.77 ERA across 218 innings for the Cardinals last year.
Lackey’s first real pitch in a Cubs uniform — a 92-mph fastball to Jean Segura — wound up flying over the right-field fence and into the patio area for a leadoff homer. Lackey screamed after Jake Lamb’s two-out, two-run chopper bounced up the middle to put the Cubs in a 3-0 hole in the first inning. Lackey also watched as Segura raced for an inside-the-park home run after the Schwarber/Fowler collision in the second inning.
“You definitely know with our offense that you don’t have to be perfect,” Lackey said after giving up six runs and lasting six innings. “But I’d like to be better than that.”
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With a lineup anchored by MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks definitely aren’t tanking or stuck in an in-between phase or cautiously collecting prospects and waiting for the farm-system rankings to be released. Led by chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and general manager Dave Stewart, Arizona is going against convention and going for it in 2016.
Sensing the market might erupt, the Cubs pushed to close Lackey’s two-year, $32 million deal in early December, before Zack Greinke’s anticipated decision between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Hours after the Lackey news broke, word trickled out, the Diamondbacks shocking the baseball world with a six-year, $206 million megadeal for Greinke.
At the winter meetings, the Diamondbacks paid a fortune to get Shelby Miller, another pitcher the Cubs targeted, giving up last year’s No. 1 overall pick (Dansby Swanson), a solid pitching prospect (Aaron Blair) and a legitimate big-league outfielder (Ender Inciarte).
The Cubs won’t score double-digit runs every night — and will try to keep Arrieta and Lester fresh for October — which makes Lackey an important bridge to the back end of the rotation and back into the playoffs.
Lackey, who has two World Series rings, chuckled when a reporter asked about first-game jitters.
“You got to talk to somebody else about nerves,” Lackey said.