SAN FRANCISCO – John Lackey was signed by the Cubs with the postseason in mind. Just when the playoffs begin for the 37-year-old right-hander, though, was unclear before Game 3 of the National League Division Series.
A three-game sweep in the best-of-five would mean Lackey wouldn’t start until Game 4 of the NLCS, and that isn’t until next Wednesday. Which would mean Lackey would be pitching on a full three weeks rest.
“If we happen to win [Monday night], that’s a pretty good problem to have,’’ Lackey said. “I think we’ll be all right.’’
Manager Joe Maddon, asked if he would consider moving Lackey, the scheduled Game 4 starter (if necessary) in the NLDS — up in the rotation for the NLCS because of the layoff – he last pitched on Sept. 27, going five innings and allowing one run at Pittsburgh — said he hadn’t contemplated pitching plans going forward.
Signed last December to a two-year, $32-million deal, Lackey brings an 8-5 record and 3.11 ERA in 23 postseason appearances, including 20 starts, to the Cubs rotation. That’s a nice, tested piece to have behind Cy Young candidates Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks and 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Lackey was 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA over 29 starts this season.
Lackey made a name for himself as a big-game pitcher early, making two starts as a 23-year-old rookie for the Anaheim Angels in the 2002 World Series and allowing one run over five innings and getting the win over Giants in Game 7. He is the only player who participated in that one who is still active.
Maddon was Angels manager Mike Scioscia’s bench coach then.
“It’s unusual that you definitely want to give the ball in a Game 7 to a guy with that little experience,’’ Maddon said. “But we felt good about it. John was such a great battler.
“There’s not a whole lot of difference between him then and now. He’s the same guy. He’s actually in better shape now. He looks better than he did in 2002. Better diet, better lifestyle.’’
In 2013, Lackey returned to the World Series with the Boston Red Sox and won the clinching Game 6 over the St. Louis Cardinals. His appetite for World Series title hasn’t been satisfied, though. He has been whistling a World Series tune throughout most of his first year with the Cubs.
“From Day 1 we have been talking about winning the World Series,’’ Lackey said. “That’s the goal. We want to be the last one standing, and that has not changed.’’
That first one now “seems like a long time ago,’’ Lackey said. “That will have nothing to do with tomorrow.’’
Lackey’s slider this season has been rated among the very best in baseball by various analytics, so there’s that. But having pitched on that type of big stage many more times since then, under high-stakes circumstances, should work in his favor as well.
“I guess there is something, there is that, for sure,’’ he said. “I feel like there are some guys that are better in bigger games, for sure. Over the years I found that you’re going to feel something different, you’re going to be a little more amped up. And to fight that sometimes can be counterproductive. If you embrace it and use it, it can take you to another level.’’