John Lackey Eats Cardinals Souls in Return to St. Louis

I think John Lackey went a long way toward winning Cubs fans over on Monday night.

By shutting out his former team in his first game back in front of the Best Fans in Baseball, the grizzled veteran turned Busch Stadium into a grizzly scene. He absolutely eviscerated the Cardinals’ lineup over the course of seven innings, allowing only four hits and walking one while striking out 11. How was he able to find so much success in his return to St. Louis? Simple: confidence and deception.

You’ve got to change things up because they know me very well, and I know them very well,” the burly right-hander confessed. “It’s by far the best place to pitch in this division, as far as size and not giving up home runs.”

While Lackey was on point with all five of his various offerings, the changeup and slider/cutter were particularly lethal. Rather than creating some sort of esoteric representation of its practitioner, I’m slashing that particular offering because different pitch tracking services categorize it as either one or the other. MLB’s At-Bat app calls the pitch a cutter, PITCHf/x calls it a slider. Whatever you choose to call the pitch, it was his bread and slutter all night long.

Only about a 7 K/9 guy over 14 MLB seasons, Lackey approached his career high of 12 strikeouts by using his fastball to set up the offspeed stuff. Dialing the heater up to 94 and 95 mph regularly in the early innings made the changeup and the pitch of ill repute look as though they were creeping up there when he threw them in the mid-80’s. He was locating well too, using the slider — we’ll stick primarily with that designation — in particular as an out pitch.

Lackey got called third strikes once each on the two- and four-seam fastball, but he picked up three whiffs on the change and six more on the whatever-you-call-it pitch. You’ll often see strikeout pitchers rack up big pitch counts, but Lackey was relatively efficient Monday night. He threw 91 pitches in his seven innings of work, keeping the ball around the corners and generally staying away from the Cardinal hitters.

The only spot of trouble came in the 5th, when Lackey gave up back-to-back hits to put men on 2nd and 3rd with one out. Ah, but he needed only to return to the pair of pitches that had served him so well to strike out the next two batters. Mike Leake swung and missed three times on sliders and Matt Carpenter whiffed on a couple of changeups.

That was the story of Lackey’s night, getting swings and misses. Some of his pitches probably could have been accused of various lewd and lascivious crimes, but it was the Cardinals bats that were suspect. Of the 29 changes and sliders the Cubs starter threw, 17 resulted in swinging strikes (6/11 mix of the former and latter). That’s good for an 18.7 percent swinging-strike rate, just a little more than double his career average of 8.9 percent. And that’s not even counting any of the whiffs he got on his other 62 pitches.

The Cards only made contact of any kind seven times on the deadly combo of pitches and only one of those instances resulted in a ball that landed in fair territory (. Even better, only three of those pitches (all sliders) were called balls, despite the fact that a good deal of them — like the featured image, for instance, in which Yadi Molina flailed helplessly at a pitch that might have hit a left-handed batter — were nowhere near the zone. To wit, Lackey earned only one called strike out of the bunch.

Following an outing from Jon Lester in which the Cubs’ bats were silent in support of a fantastic performance, there was a lingering fear that Lackey might be getting more of the same. But a Dexter Fowler solo shot opened the scoring in the 6th, then a three-spot in the 7th, with the pitcher helping his cause by tacking on an RBI single to cap the inning, padded the score. Kris Bryant knocked home another in the 8th after Lackey had exited, and the pen made the score hold up.

Lackey spoke of being confident and comfortable in the familiar confines of Busch Stadium, but it’s also got to feel good to pitch in front of a lineup that can and should put up a significant number of runs. The four runs the Cubs gave him on Monday were more than enough, but paltry compared to nine runs in each of Lackey’s two previous starts. It doesn’t get any better for a pitcher than to know that he’s got command and feel for his stuff and that his hitters will support him on the other side.

It’d be nice to say that this was the kind of outing the Cubs were expecting from Lackey when they signed him this offseason, but it’s not true. No, this was better than what anyone could have hoped for. We’re not going to see this version of Lackey every time out, but his performance laid out more than enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s still a very dangerous man.

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