John Lackey willed himself to yet another playoff win, and that was enough to get the St. Louis Cardinals off to a flying start in yet another postseason journey.
Lackey dominated the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Division Series Friday night, leading the Redbirds to a 4-0 win and a 1-0 edge in the best-of-five series.
“Incredible,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny marveled. “We talk a lot about him being a big-game pitcher, about the experience he’s had, how he thrives in those situations, and then he just takes it there and goes a step further with just the way he competed today.”
Lackey allowed two hits, walked one and struck out five in 7 1/3 innings, but if anything he was more dominating than that.
He allowed only one Cubs runner to reach scoring position – Addison Russell on a leadoff single, a stolen base and a groundout in the sixth – but then retired Dexter Fowler on a flyball to right to squelch the Cubs’ only scoring threat on the night.
“Playoffs, man, this is what you play for,” said Lackey, 36. “I’ve been playing a while, and this is pretty much the only reason I’m still going. I’m trying to win rings, and trying to be part of something special as a team.”
Lackey’s eight playoff victory and 19th postseason start was as special as any he’s made, going back to his rookie season in 2002. Not for nothing, his 7 1/3 innings pitched Friday gave him 124 1/3 in the postseason for his career, passing Randy Johnson (121 innings) and tying him with Jim Palmer.
“I knew he would do well, I didn’t know he’d do that well,” said Cardinals rookie Stephen Piscotty, whose two-run homer in the eighth cemented Lackey’s win. “That was special. He had a no-hitter going into the sixth. He was just dominant, just attacking; (that) helps the defense so much. ...
“Man, he was tremendous, and it’s fun to be a part of that, when he’s doing his thing.”
How to measure Lackey’s effort? He had the Cubs reeling. And then he had them raving.
“I saw him as a young man in 2002, and yeah, he was always kind of fearless,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. a coach with Anaheim when Lackey reached the big leagues with the Angels 13 years ago. “He comes from Texas, kind of does the John Wayne strut out there. He’s that guy ...
“I could see from the beginning we were going to have a hard time with John Lackey based on his location, the kind of swings we were getting, the kind of contact, a lot of weak contact on our part,” Maddon said. “He wasn’t punching us out, but a lot of weak contact.”
It was just what the Cardinals needed on this night, trying to squelch the spirit of an upstart Cubs team that seems primed to push the Redbirds for playoff supremacy.
“I think there is just something inside of him, a lot like what we’ve seen in the past in our staff from an Adam Wainwright and from a Chris Carpenter and on down the line,” Matheny said. “These guys who want that role as being the one that sets the tone.
“That’s something that John Lackey has done very well ... When you get him into a big situation, he’s not going to scare, and he’s going to come out with better stuff when you turn up the heat. You mix that with the kind of stuff he has right now, and he’s top-tier pitcher.”
Lackey, set to return for a Game 5 start if the series goes that far, said all those years of experience helped him look past the record playoff crowd (47,830) on hand for the NLDS opener Friday night.
“You still gotta prepare, still gotta do it again,” he said. “But as far as the pregame stuff and the stuff around the game, I knew what to expect there. Those kinds of distractions don’t affect me like somebody that’s new this time of year.”