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John Lackey brings fire and nice to Cubs rotation

MESA, Ariz. – As Cubs pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey got to the row of practice mounds for one of their throwing sessions of the spring the other day, Lester asked the newcomer which mound he wanted.

“Why do you care what mound I’m on?” Lackey snapped. “I’ll throw where I want to. Worry about yourself.”

There may have been seven or eight extra words included for four-letter flavor.

Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Except it’s nothing new for either of these grizzled, veteran Cubs starters, whose Chicago reunion is one of the bigger reasons for the confidence expressed in camp that this club can march a step deeper into October after last year’s National League Championship Series appearance.

“I’m just getting to know Jon Lester over the last year,” manager Joe Maddon said, “and I think he likes to have people around him that he’s familiar with. Lackey’s the perfect foil in a sense.

“They’re kind of vibrating on the same level right now professionally, and they can bounce things off one another as peers, look each other in the eye. It’s healthy all the way around. When we signed John Lackey [for two years, $32 million] in the offseason, I thought he was one of the top free agent signs of the whole winter by anybody, and specifically for us because of how he fits in with everything we’re doing.”

Forget the fact the Cubs signed Lackey away from the top of the Cardinals rotation. And forget what any of the so-called experts say to expect for his performance at 37 – various statistical projections calling him a safe bet for continued high performance or an even safer bet for a steep dropoff.

If relationships, track records and ferocity mean anything, Lackey’s a sure bet to contribute to both the impressionable youth on the team as well as a few, familiar veterans.

The last time Lackey and Lester were together, they combined with catcher David Ross to win a third World Series in 10 seasons for the Boston Red Sox in 2013.

Lester, a key player in the Cubs’ 97-win success last season, said he’s more comfortable just being in his second season with the team and in Arizona for the spring, and he seemed to agree with Maddon that Lackey’s mere presence could be an individual boost for Lester.

“When you know people as well as we know each other, you can definitely talk a little bit different than you talk to everybody else,” said Lester, who says he considers Lackey a “brother.”

“There’s no sugar-coating anything around us,” he added. “You probably don’t want to be in on a lot of conversations we have.”

Whatever their bond might contribute to the rotation, Lackey’s famous temperament alone adds an emotional spice to the Cubs’ mix.

“I know John can get upset at different moments,” said Maddon, who had Lackey early in the pitcher’s career when Maddon was a coach for the Angels. “I kind of enjoy that. We’ve actually had beers over that.”

Lackey calls himself laid back four out of five days.

But on the fifth day, when he pitches, his rap sheet includes yelling at Jason Kendall for trying to get hit by a pitch in a 2006 game, then subsequently putting the mound-charging catcher in a headlock and punching him a few times; getting ejected two pitches into a 2009 game for throwing behind Ian Kinsler’s head, then hitting him with the next pitch (Kinsler homered twice the night before against Lackey’s Angels); and as recently as 2014 in St. Louis facing off briefly with Eric Hinske, then the Cubs first-base coach, after yelling at hitter Starlin Castro.

“When he’s on the mound, he’s a tough dude out there. He wants to be huffing and puffing and showing you that he’s emotional,” said Hinske, now the Cubs’ assistant hitting coach. “And it’s tough to know what kind of guy he is. Now that I’ve met him, it’s nice to see that he’s actually a good dude.

“He was just competing. And that’s what you want on your team. He’s been on winning clubs because of that.”

Said Lackey: “Obviously, I compete hard on the field and get after it, and I know how that can be perceived sometimes. But I think people find out I’m a lot different than they think I am, which is fine. Because in between the lines I don’t really care what the other team thinks about me; I’m there to win.”

Maddon suggests that just maybe Lackey has mellowed some in recent years, but neither Lackey nor Lester seem willing to believe that.

“I think it’s helped me for sure,” Lackey said of the edginess. “It’s not going anywhere.”