A little over six weeks ago in Atlanta, after he shut down the Braves to start a personal stretch of five victories in five starts, John Lackey sneered at any talk that the Cubs might be better off stashing the 38-year-old right-hander (and occasional home-run magnet) in their bullpen.
“That ship sailed,” he said then. “That ain’t gonna happen.”
But Lackey added an important qualifier: “Except for the playoffs. In big games, we can compromise.”
Jump ahead to Friday at Wrigley Field, where Lackey turned in arguably his best outing of the season. Again flummoxing the Braves — whose last 16 batters against Lackey were set down in order — he pitched seven scoreless innings in the Cubs’ 2-0 victory.
Yes, Lackey has surrendered long balls at a higher rate than anyone in the National League. Indeed, his 4.74 ERA — down a quarter of a run from where it was entering the game — is rather unsightly. No, this isn’t Lackey, a three-time World Series champion, at his career best.
But the Cubs are 9-1 in his last 10 starts. He’s 3-0 with a natty 2.48 ERA in his last five home starts. And he has taken his record from 4-9 to 11-10, a heck of an accomplishment for a guy many Cubs fans worried was washed up.
Lackey is as important as any pitcher to the Cubs’ effort to lock down a division title. But the question will hang over him — and manager Joe Maddon — for all of September: Is he the odd man out come playoff time?
Cue that Lackey sneer.
“I just work here,” he said.
So does Jose Quintana. Why mention him? It’s pretty simple.
Assuming Jon Lester has an issue-free return from the 10-day disabled list Saturday and regains his usual form, he’ll be an obvious lock for a postseason spot in the rotation. The same certainly can be said of Jake Arrieta and the resurgent Kyle Hendricks. That leaves room for one in a four-man rotation, which surely will be the approach in the playoffs.
So: Lackey or Quintana?
“Baseball’s got a cruel way of taking care of its own moments and decisions like that,” Maddon said. “If everybody stays well and healthy, then you’re just going to have to make your best call at the moment. But you don’t get too far ahead of yourself right now. You just watch.
“Johnny has been there and done that before. ‘Q’ would like to get [to the postseason]. But we’ll make those decisions later. We just want to get there.”
At a season-high 14 games over .500, with five consecutive victories on this homestand and a 3½-game division lead on the Brewers, the Cubs are holding all the cards as they power into the final full month of the season. But they’re going to have to discard a starting pitcher, and it might not be all that easy to do.
The Cubs signed Lackey before last season for one reason above all others: his experience when all the chips are on the table. As for Quintana, acquired from the White Sox in July, his next meaningful October start will be his first.
Yet Quintana is 28, a left-hander in his prime. True, the Cubs didn’t get Lackey so they could stash him in their bullpen — or leave him off the postseason roster altogether — at money time. But they sure as heck didn’t get Quintana so he could play a bit part in another World Series push.
It was an easy call a year ago to make Jason Hammel — even with his 15 victories — the odd man out. Any other move would’ve been unthinkable. This time around, it’ll be a much tougher call. And, in the case of Lackey, a much bigger personality to deal with.
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