Don’t look now, but there might be a new Cubs’ ace in town.
John Lackey, 15 years and 2,800 innings of toothy grimaces into his major-league life, appears to have rediscovered pitching youth at 38 for the defending champs.
The Cubs have not lost a Lackey start since June as the right-hander pitched another successful six innings Wednesday night against the Reds at Wrigley Field – lowering his ERA in six starts since the All-Star break to 3.06.
Strange and unexpected considering his ugly first half?
Consider his stranger-than-fiction moment in the fourth inning when – after a single through the infield – he stole second base when pitcher Homer Bailey ignored him.
He finished off his first career steal with a hard, feet-first slide and – naturally? – was picked off second one batter later to end the inning.
He could laugh by then (and teammates certainly did), with Anthony Rizzo’s first-inning grand slam helping provide a 5-1 lead by that point in the game. Never mind the bullpen giving up three in the seventh and two in the eighth to cost Lackey a win.
Lackey loaded the bases with none out in the first Wednesday, did it again with two out in second and staggered into the third with 45 pitches spent. But he quickly regrouped to retire 13 of the final 14 batters he faced, including the final 10.
Suddenly, the grizzled veteran, who has talked openly about riding off into retirement since spring training, might be a candidate to extend his career into a top-heavy free agent market this winter.
“Knowing him, how competitive he is, if he finishes strong I could see him considering coming back,” said manager Joe Maddon, who has known Lackey since Maddon was an Angels bench coach as Lackey broke into the majors.
“Right now, stuff-wise, he’s as good as he’s been the last couple years,” Maddon said. “His fastball, the break on his slider – everything about him right now I like. It’s absolutely trending in a northerly direction.”
Lackey figures to have eight starts left to continue to push down a 4.67 ERA and help push the Cubs into a possible third consecutive playoff berth.
Whether he and the Cubs would consider each other a match on an extension is doubtful. But if he finishes the second half the way he started it?
“Where else would you want to be?” Maddon said. “If you have a chance to play major league baseball and it’s mutual, why would you not want to be here?”
When Reds first baseman Joey Votto singled in his first at-bat off Lackey on Wednesday, the Ted Williams watch was on.
Votto entered the game having reached base at least twice in 20 consecutive games – one short of Williams’ 1948 major-league record.
“He’s not just doing it this year. He’s been doing it his whole career,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said.
“He’s the best player ever. He’s my favorite player,” added Bryant, who quickly amending that to include teammates. “I love watching him, love talking to him, just picking his brain. He’s a special player, man.”
Votto flied to the wall in right and lined back to the mound in his two other at-bats against Lackey, and he grounded out to first against reliever Brian Duensing in the seventh.
Notes: Reliever Koji Uehara (neck) threw a bullpen session Wednesday and is scheduled to throw another Saturday, after which the club might schedule his return from the disabled list. …Tuesday’s loss to the Reds was the Cubs’ first in 11 games over the past three years that were part of Maddon’s designated “American Legion” weeks in August – when he orders players to show up later to the ballpark and skip pregame work.
Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub