John Lackey Showcases Late-Career Renaissance with Dazzling NLDS Gem

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 10, 2015

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher John Lackey (41) acknowledges the crowd after being taken out during the eighth inning of Game 1 in baseball's National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

In their first game of the 2015 postseason, the St. Louis Cardinals got a boost from two rookies and one guy who's being paid like a rookie.

The big difference, of course, is that the guy they're only paying like a rookie is 36 years old and is in the middle of what might be the finest season of a long, successful career.

That would be John Lackey. He took the ball in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium on Friday and led the Cardinals to a 4-0 victory by pitching seven and one-third shutout innings. He took a no-hitter into the sixth and finished with just two hits and one walk allowed with five strikeouts. MLB highlighted the Cardinals' shutout:

In the process, Lackey lowered his career postseason ERA to 2.90 in 124.1 innings. Somewhat quietly, he's put himself up there among the great postseason pitchers in MLB history.

"You put a guy in a situation like this," said Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny after the game, per MLB.com, "and we talk a lot about him being a big-game pitcher, about the experience he's had, how he thrives in these situations, and then he just takes it there and goes a step further with just the way he competed today."

As for Lackey's offense, it was Matt Holliday's first-inning RBI single off Jon Lester—who also pitched very wellthat put the Cardinals on the board and long home runs by rookies Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty in the eighth inning that put the game away.

For the Cardinals, this means they now need just two wins to move on to what would be their fifth straight National League Championship Series appearance. For Lackey, it was yet another exclamation point on a season that's featured many more than anyone could have anticipated.

When the Cardinals acquired Lackey in a trade with the Boston Red Sox last year, they were acquiring a veteran pitcher they knew they controlled through at least the end of 2014.

However, there was some question about whether Lackey would stick around in 2015. The Cardinals technically held a mere $500,000 team option for the 2015 season—a gift from a clause in Lackey's contract that kicked in when he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012—the possibility existed that Lackey would simply take his $100-plus million in career earnings and hang up his spikes.

Fortunately, Lackey didn't take long to ease any and all doubts, confirming in early August that he would indeed honor his league-minimum 2015 option if the Cardinals picked it up.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Though Lackey posted just a 4.30 ERA in 10 regular-season starts for them, the Cardinals did just that. And for that, they were rewarded with arguably the best season of Lackey's career.

All Lackey did in his 33 starts was post a career-low 2.77 ERA across 218 innings, also marking his first 200-inning season since his first year in Boston in 2010. As for how he did it, it was a combination of Lackey being his usual self while also adopting some new tricks.

One thing Lackey has going for him is that he still has a good arm attached to his body. FanGraphs put his average fastball at 91.6 miles per hour in 2015, which is where he was even as a much younger man in his final year in Anaheim in 2009.

And as ESPN Stats & Info can vouch, against the Cubs, he showed that he's still plenty capable of reaching back for more:

But while good velocity definitely helps, while playing the Cubs Lackey also demonstrated that he's no longer using velocity as a crutch. 

As Brooks Baseball can show, Lackey essentially shelved his two-seam fastball upon his departure from Anaheim, instead choosing a life as a four-seamer/slider pitcher. But his two-seamer made a comeback in 2015, particularly in the second half when it accounted for nearly a quarter of his pitches.

What's the value of a good two-seamer? Well, it never hurts to simply have another nasty pitch in your arsenal. As pictured by MLB GIFs, that's another thing Lackey demonstrated Friday:

Apart from sheer nastiness, a good two-seamer is also an easy way to get ground balls. Those started coming for Lackey as he moved more toward his two-seamer in the second half of the year, as he upped his GB% from 44.6 to 47.9.

Against the Cubs, it was more of the same. Per ESPN.com, he induced 10 ground balls to seven fly balls. That'll work.

Apart from maintaining good velocity and reaping the benefits of more liberal two-seamer usage, there was something else Lackey has done really well this season that he got a chance to demonstrate in Game 1.

If he seemed particularly nasty in the few instances in which the Cubs had runners on base, well, just know that was also a continuation of a trend. As Neil Weinberg noted at FanGraphs, Lackey was notably harder to hit with men on base—and even harder to hit with men in scoring position—than he was with the bases empty in 2015. His .227 average against with men on base put him in the same company as Gerrit Cole. His .200 average against with men in scoring position was the league's 11th-best.

We're not talking about a major overhaul here, but all of this definitely worked for Lackey throughout 2015. And it's probably because good velocity, a good two-seamer and an ability to clamp down with runners on base will make a pitcher a tough matchup for pretty much anyone.

It would appear, however, that Lackey is an especially tough matchup for the Cubs.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Even before he got them again on Friday, Lackey had already dominated the Cubs to the tune of a 1.25 ERA in three starts throughout 2015. Three related stories would appear to be that the Cubs are among baseball's least consistent teams at hitting good velocity, hitting two-seamer/sinkers and hitting with men on base. They're not particularly good at the things that Lackey is good at.

On the bright side for the Cubs, it's possible they won't see Lackey again in this series. If they can win the next three games against Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn, they'll move on to the National League Championship Series, and their struggles against Lackey will become nothing more than a bad memory.

If the Cubs only win two of the next three, however, Lackey will be waiting for them in Game 5. After already turning in a renaissance season for the books, that would be his chance to produce yet another work of art. 

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, BaseballSavant.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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