A passion for country music, trucks and hunting created a bond between pitchers John Lackey of the St. Louis Cardinals and Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs.
The two forged a close friendship two years ago in Boston when they helped the Red Sox defeat the Cardinals in the World Series, and both plan on maintaining that relationship long after their careers have ended.
But at 5:45 p.m. Friday at Busch Stadium, Lackey and Lester will be combatants, each trying to outdo the other in Game 1 of the best-of-five National League Championship Series.
“I think we definitely have similar likes and dislikes. I mean, I have nothing but respect for him,” said Lackey, a right-hander who was 13-10 with a 2.77 ERA in 33 starts. “Me and him are going to be friends long after this thing’s over, and he’s my boy.
“I wish him nothing but the best, but I’m going to try to get after him and I expect nothing but the same from him. I know he’s going to be ready to go. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Lester, a left-hander who signed a six-year, $155 million free-agent contract with the Cubs during the offseason, was 11-12 with a 3.34 ERA in 32 starts.
Lester echoed Lackey’s sentiments about their Game 1 meeting. For three hours, at least, their friendship will be suspended, rekindled only when the business day has concluded.
“It’s not too often you get to be in a situation like this to against one of your better friends,” Lester said. “(But) we’ve done this before, before I got to play with him in Boston. He’s such a good competitor. He’s going to almost ‘outwill’ you sometimes.
“Our friendship will go beyond this game; it will go beyond our careers. It’s something that means a lot to me. But come (Friday), we’re not buddies anymore. We’ve got to go to battle and try to beat one another. ... It will just be a fun game.”
The Cardinals, who are 10-2 in division series, never have played the Cubs in the postseason. They were 11-8 against the Cubs in the season series, outscoring them 84-79.
Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who will play for the first time since Sept. 20, has a competitive zeal that is matched only by the fiery Lackey. That is one of the reasons Molina likes where the Cardinals stand for Game 1, and any other game Lackey starts.
“Lackey is a horse,” Molina said. “Every time he steps on the mound, you know it’s going to be a close game. Hopefully, he doesn’t change that and hopefully we come ready to go.”
Lester is 1-3 with a 2.59 ERA in five starts against St. Louis this season. The Cubs scored three runs or less in four of his starts against the Cardinals and were blanked twice. In 14 postseason games, including 12 starts, Lester is 6-4 with a 2.57 ERA.
What does Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong see from Lester?
“The same thing I see from Lackey,” Wong said. “These guys have been together, they’ve won World Series and they know what it’s about. Lester is going to come out (Friday) as a different animal than we’ve seen all season. We know that. Every time the postseason comes around, he knows how to turn it on. So does Lackey.
“We know we’re in for a dogfight. It’s two evenly matched teams that have played really well throughout the season. Now it’s time to see who’s going to move on.”
Lackey has his own postseason pedigree. He is 7-5 with a 3.08 ERA in 21 playoff games, 18 as a starter. Like Lester, he strives to shine when the lights are at their brightest, and has the confidence of knowing he was 2-0 with a 1.25 ERA in three starts against the Cubs.
“It’s definitely nice to be the guy to kind of start things off and hopefully get things rolling in the right direction,” Lackey said. “Hopefully, (we can) build some momentum for the team to carry it through the series. It’s going to be a great challenge. They’re a great team.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has observed the youthful Cubs’ maturation process from afar and considers them a legitimate threat to his team’s NL reign.
The Cardinals have a distinct edge in postseason experience, while the Cubs’ 20-somethings are convinced they can accomplish anything under first-year manager Joe Maddon.
“It’s a talented team,” Matheny said of the Cubs. “They’re going to be a well-prepared. And they compete. They’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, just as we have.”
Maddon believed the Cubs gained invaluable experience Wednesday when they defeated Pittsburgh 4-0 in the wild-card game. He said it was akin to winning a Game 7.
“When you go through a moment like we did (Wednesday), we played Game 7 already,” Maddon said. “Think about it. That’s the most intense game you’re going to play all year.”