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Living on the edge: It’s what makes Lackey a force for Cubs

Before anybody tells the story of John Lackey and his relationship with his new team, let’s get a few things straight:

His long-term memory is impeccable. Sabermetrics are as useful to him as butterflies. He knows the exact size and weight difference between a game in June and one in “big-boy” October. And he doesn’t want a haircut.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that one,” teammate Travis Wood said, smiling

The postgame one-liners are becoming trademarks of Lackey in the veteran pitcher’s first year with the Cubs – almost as much as the stare-downs, jawing with umps and fist pumps on the field.

Lackey reacts to a run scoring in a game last month.

“He’s edgy, man,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I love it.

“And I think his swagger rubs off,” he added.

Whatever the 37-year-old right-hander has meant to the Cubs on the field this year – including a 5-1 victory over his old Angels team Tuesday night – he also has brought to the feel-good vibe of the Cubs culture a level of edginess that wasn’t there a year ago.

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 8.32.29 PMNot happy with Bethancourt

“He’s a bulldog,” Wood said. “You didn’t like him on the other side. But when you’ve got him on your team you love him.”

Lackey, who once got ejected two pitches into a start, already has been separated from umpires by teammates at least three times this season; expressed irritation for a seventh-inning hook by Maddon in New York; and after a young Padres hitter took a few extra seconds to watch a home run in May said, “I got a long memory.”

“He’s always been that guy,” Maddon said after Lackey allowed a one-out homer to Kole Calhoun in the first, then only one hit out of the infield the rest of the way in an eight-inning gem Tuesday night – for the Cubs’ eighth straight victory.

“He’s not going to be out there smiling all the time,” Maddon said. “He’s going to be upset with umpires. He’s going to be upset with his manager. He’s going to be upset with teammates on occasion. That’s just who he is. When you know that, it’s OK.”

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 8.24.28 PMHeyward as peacemaker 

That might be as important to what this team plans to accomplish this year as anything else Lackey brings, if not a significant reason nobody else is getting the ball in the playoffs when it’s his turn to pitch, no matter how good the four others look by October.

“I was there when he won the World Series for the Angels [in Game 7 in 2002],” Maddon said. “And I’ve had to face him. This guy’s been really good in the postseason. Because he’s not afraid.

“That experience matters.”

Lackey (9-7), who has two World Series-clinching starts 11 years apart, said the fact he’s in play for a shot at No. 3 only reinforces his reasons for signing that two-year deal in December — after splitting a pair of playoff starts for the Cardinals against the Cubs last October.

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Not that teammates knew quite what to expect at first.

“That’s happened the last couple places that I’ve gone for sure,” Lackey said of new teammates saying they expected something different before getting to know the surprisingly easy-going teammate in the clubhouse. ”Between the lines and everywhere else are two different worlds to me.”

Maddon, who became close with Lackey as a young player in Anaheim, and Lester, who became closer as a teammate in Boston, both say his edge hasn’t changed.

Maybe because he needs it.

“A hundred percent,” Lackey said. “I’m 37 years old competing against these guys. I’m not good enough to compete and be happy. I got to get a little angry.”

He’s not about to waste any words on fluff, either.

“I don’t sugarcoat a whole lot, I guess,” he said. “There’s enough fake stuff in the world nowadays. Somebody’s got to keep it real.”

 

Man of few words

The touted “edge” veteran John Lackey was said last winter to bringing to the Cubs can be heard in some of his concise, often terse, postgame comments since then:

  • “It’s June. Who cares? Big-boy games are totally different” –On the significance of a loss to the Mets.
  • “You’re asking the wrong dude” –On Sabermetrics.
  • “You need to talk to somebody else about nerves” –On possible nervousness in Cubs debut
  • “I don’t believe in pressure in April or May. I’ve been in October about 10 times” –On pressure of starting the season strong.
  • “I got a long memory”–On Christian Bethancourt pimping a home run in May.
  • “I’ve seen booed, and that ain’t booed. That was pretty soft booing”–On teammate Jason Heywards reception in return to St. Louis
  • “There’s ways to rectify that”–On hitters looking too “comfortable” in two-strike counts
  • “I don’t know what planet that’s a hit on”–On Ichiro Suzuki’s infield hit that resulted in Suzuki on second after a bad throw.
  • “Yeah, I mean, whatever. That’s an out”–On Ichiro’s speed on that “hit.”
  • “I didn’t even know that. I guess not that high”–On where beating all 30 MLB teams ranks in his career
  • “You couldn’t tell if that was a double play ball? You can decide. It is the big leagues”–After a July loss to the Brewers.
  • “I’ve gone against a bunch of aces, man”–On the thrill of facing Sox “ace” Chris Sale.
  • “We’re trying to win a World Series. I didn’t come here for a haircut”–On expectations.