The Lackey-Lester Story Gets Another Chapter

The shared history of John Lackey and Jon Lester got another chapter last night at Busch Stadium. Lackey outdueled Lester in a game that was 1-0 going into the eighth inning before ending at 4-zip, as the St. Louis Cardinals grabbed Game 1 of their National League Division Series with the Chicago Cubs.

Lester and Lackey faced each other twice back in 2008, when Lester was with the Red Sox and Lackey was an Angel. Boston won both games. After Lackey became a Red Sox, the two were united more infamously as part of the fried chicken-and-beer in the clubhouse fiasco that become symbolic of an epic September collapse in 2011 that ended the Terry Francona era.

Lester and Lackey shared redemption together two years later, as the 1-2 starters on Boston’s 2013 World Series champion, winning a combined three games in the Fall Classic against these Cardinals. Both have reputations for being clutch October performers and both lived up to that reputation last night in St. Louis.

Lackey was nothing short of brilliant, giving up just three hits and working into the eighth inning. Lester got off to a slow start and gave up a first-inning run. The gritty lefthander immediately settled in and became unhittable himself, but in watching the game unfold it seemed like that one-run lead might as well have been a five-run cushion the way Lackey was dominating.

St. Louis pinch-hitter Thom Pham finally got to Lester again in the eighth with a long home run that provided some insurance. After a base hit to Matt Carpenter, Lester was removed and had to billed for another run when Pedro Strop came out of the bullpen and gave up the long ball. Lester’s performance would be considered an October gem in just about any other context. But not this one, where Lackey’s dominance was almost surreal.

The game was much more important to St. Louis, being at home and having Jake Arrieta lying in wait for them on Monday in Wrigley Field for Game 3. The Cubs have to send Kyle Hendrick to the mound tonight to face Jaime Garcia and if Chicago can steal a win, they’ll have done what they need to do in St. Louis—and that’s set up a trajectory where we could see a final Lackey-Lester battle in a potential Game 5.

Elsewhere in yesterday’s Friday Foursome that had each Division Series in action…

*Neither Kansas City’s Johnny Cueto nor Texas’ Cole Hamels had their best stuff, but the hired guns of the American League showed some guts in settling down after slow starts. Cueto dug himself a 4-1 hole in a must-win game against Houston, but rolled through the middle innings unscathed and let his team come back as the Royals ultimately won 5-4.

The Rangers-Blue Jays game was more dramatic. Hamels quickly coughed up an early 3-1 lead and fell behind 4-3, although some untimely defense behind him didn’t help. But the Texas lefty also prevented Toronto from extending the lead and the Rangers finally tied it with two outs in the eighth, before going on to win in fourteen innings.

Texas is now in firm command, with a 2-0 series lead and going back home, but Toronto’s rotation is stronger at the 3-4 spots, with R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. With the way road teams are playing in this postseason, I’m not ready to rule out a Blue Jay sweep in Arlington and returning back to the Rogers Centre for a Game 5—which would be David Price for Toronto and possibly Hamels on short rest for Texas.

Kansas City may have tied the series, but Houston still got their road win and can now turn to Dallas Keuchel on Sunday. The Cy Young Award winner has been particularly unhittable at home this season.

*Last night’s Dodgers-Mets game, with New York winning 3-1, sums up everything I don’t like about the media slurping of Clayton Kershaw, who took another postseason loss. It’s not that I don’t think Kershaw isn’t really good, and it’s not that I think he pitched badly last night. He didn’t. But I reject the notion that he’s somehow head and shoulders above the rest of the pitchers in baseball, the so-called “best pitcher on the planet”, to use the cliché that’s in-vogue these days. Jacob deGrom had a pretty good year himself and he demonstrated that again last night.

The American League teams will travel today and resume play on Sunday. The National League has a Game 2 doubleheader. Chicago-St. Louis will be followed by New York-Los Angeles, the latter game sending Zack Greinke to the mound to face the Mets’ young righthander Noah Syndergaard. The games will begin at 5:30 PM ET on TBS and run back-to-back.