ST. LOUIS — When Allen Craig and Joe Kelly headed to Boston in exchange for John Lackey, Monday night was exactly the setting the Cardinals envisioned for their new big game pitcher.
Lackey’s postseason numbers are terrific, with an ERA of 3.03, 78 strikeouts and 35 runs allowed in 104 innings of work. He last saw October baseball when he presided over a decisive Game 6 win in the 2013 World Series, besting the Cardinals when he was a member of the Red Sox.
If you can’t beat them, get them to join you, I guess. Now Lackey’s vast postseason experience is working for St. Louis, and Mike Matheny is ready to see what he’s got.
“The pressure isn't anything new for John Lackey, which is part of the reason why we're excited to watch him pitch Game 3,” the manager said. “This is a stage he's been on, and we've watched him excel on this stage. This is why he wanted to be over here, too. He was excited about being a part of this club, realizing there was an opportunity to pitch in October. And once a veteran player gets a taste of this, they realize this is what it's about.”
For Lackey, Monday’s start will be about who takes control of the NLDS. Clayton Kershaw has been named the Los Angeles starter for Game 4, and Lackey’s efforts will go a long way to determine if baseball’s best pitcher plays the role of hammer or that of safety net.
He will face a lineup with a fair amount of experience against him, most notably Carl Crawford. The lefty outfielder has 23 hits in 48 at bats against Lackey, posting three doubles, a triple, two bombs and nine RBIs to go with his .479 average. He’ll bat sixth behind Hanley Ramirez.
Adrian Gonzalez will be up third, sporting a .353 average in 17 at bats. Juan Uribe, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp all have double-digit plate appearances against the 35-year-old, though none of them is hitting better than .261 (Uribe).
Experience may be a hindrance these days, as Lackey has evolved in the later years of his career.
“More options now. I've got more pitches, more things I can do if one thing is not working,” he said of his evolved arsenal. “Early on in my career I was pretty much a two-pitch pitcher and now I can kind of manipulate some things; if one thing is not working, try to do something else.”
Lackey leans on his four seam fastball heavily, throwing it more than 40 percent of the time. His slider has gradually increased in use to evenly split time with his curve, and a sinker rounds out his repertoire. The change up is rarely seen.
“Just a guy that knows how to use his stuff,” Matheny said of his starter. “A smart pitcher and he's got a real good feel for where the hitters are and where he wants to be, and trying to kind of stay one step ahead of them.”
Lackey will need to if he hopes to make a deep run in Game 3. The Dodger lineup is chock full of power and a resurgent Kemp makes the middle of the order a frightening proposition. Matheny will likely be on the top step of the bullpen at any sign of early trouble, and Lackey- who is notorious for wanting to stay in games- will have to make a compelling case to remain in such a crucial contest.
“Yeah, I've had some interesting looks and conversations,” Matheny said. “Yeah, every time I go to take him out, I know it's going to be something. But that was expected when he got here. We don't necessarily want our pitchers standing on the mound looking into the bullpen wondering when they're going to get a life preserver and somebody to come help them.”
If help is needed, the Cardinals bullpen should have no availability issues. Everyone had a day off Sunday, with no workouts scheduled when the club returned to St. Louis.