The body language may have seemed innocent enough at the time, but Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon wasn’t taking any chances.
Not when he considers what is still at stake in for a team that has produced its share of magical moments this season.
So when Maddon saw starter John Lackey move his arm in a manner he normally doesn’t Sunday night, Maddon knew what he had to do.
Even if Lackey wasn’t going to like it.
Maddon lifted Lackey because of shoulder stiffness – a diagnosis Lackey characterized afterward as not being a big deal. At the time, Lackey hadn’t allowed an earned run and had only given up four hits over 6 2/3 inning against the Cardinals
With Lackey already having the reputation of not leaving games easily, Maddon knew he had his work cut out for him.
But at this point of the season when the Cubs have what appears to be a comfortable 12-game lead over the Cardinals in the Central Division, Maddon knew the situation called for him to be safe rather than sorry.
“He tried to talk me out of it and I wasn’t going to be talked out of it,” Maddon said after the Cubs’ bullpen surrendered five runs in the eighth inning in a 6-4 loss. “We’re just going to wait on it.”
Lackey, who underwent treatment after leaving the game, appeared afterward to be unfazed. Just how unaffected was he? Lackey sidestepped a question about his shoulder to begin his postgame press conference by saying hello to his kids after being chastised by his 4-year-old daughter for not saying hi when he finds himself in front of a television camera.
“I’m OK,” Lackey said. “It’s nothing crazy. Trust me, I’ve been out there feeling a lot worse so year, I’ll be all right.”
At one point, Lackey characterized the shoulder soreness as “an old thing” before repeating he would be fine and blaming the soreness on an extra bullpen session he tends to throw after each start. Maddon said Lackey isn’t planning on missing his next scheduled start, but that “we don’t know right now.”
For now, the apparent shoulder scare appears to be nothing more than a bump in the road. So too is a two-game losing streak to the Cardinals, who earned a series split with Sunday night’s come-from-behind victory.
But considering the Cardinals left town still trailing the Cubs by the same 12 games they did when the series started on Thursday, the skid – much like Lackey’s shoulder – doesn’t appear to be a major issue, especially if you ask the Cubs about the back-to-back losses when considered in the grander scheme.
“It’s not awful,” Maddon said of the series split. “Of course, being in the position of winning the the first two (games), you’d like to able to do more and we were in position to.”
The Cubs led 3-1 when Lackey departed after Anthony Rizzo delivered his second RBI single of the game in the sixth inning. But when the Cubs failed to extend their lead after loading the bases with nobody out in the seventh, the wheels quickly came off when the Cardinals scored five runs in the eighth – including four off of Hector Rondon.
Still, in the grand scheme of things, two straight bullpen collapses after the Cubs reeled off 11 straight wins isn’t the end of the world. Especially for a team that believes it controls its destiny despite having six games remaining against the Cardinals in September.
“We know, spot on, it’s not easy to make up games when you’re not playing that team that you’re chasing,” said Rizzo, who also homered.
Said Lackey: “When you have the kind of lead we do, you sort of have leeway to do some things.”
Just how much breathing room they’ll have by the end is still to be determined.
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