ST. LOUIS -- His team in need of starting pitching depth, general manager John Mozeliak sifted through the available options last summer with an eye on not only what an acquisition could do in the immediate but also what it would mean for October.
It was with postseason aspirations in mind that Mozeliak swung a deal with the Red Sox for John Lackey, parting with young pitching talent Joe Kelly and an underachieving Allen Craig to land a pitcher who had been a six-time postseason participant. Lackey added a seventh playoff run to his resume a year ago and will be the Cardinals' starter in Game 1 of National League Division Series at 5:30 p.m. CT on Friday as the Cardinals begin another championship quest.
"When we were looking at him, it reminded us a lot of the Chris Carpenter type, guys like that just rise up to occasions," Mozeliak said. "He's had a lot of opportunities to pitch in October and has made the most of it. When you think about the acquisition, it made sense to us because that's our goal -- to play in October and to give him the ball."
Lackey, known for his fiery on-field demeanor, Texas drawl and love of all things country, has anchored a Cardinals rotation that lost ace Adam Wainwright just three weeks into the season. Lackey turns 37 later this month, but he is coming off what he recently described as the best year of his career. Over 33 starts, Lackey threw a team-high 218 innings and had a 2.77 ERA.
Lackey was steady and reliable, throwing at least six innings in 28 starts and finishing fourth among NL starters with 26 quality starts. The only pitchers with more -- Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw -- are likely to finish as the top three vote-getters, in some order, in the NL Cy Young Award race.
"You hear some guys saying it's just another game. It's not," Lackey said. "You gotta accept that you're going to feel something different. You gotta accept that you're going to be a little more amped up. And you gotta use it in the right direction, because it can make you a better player."
Lackey's postseason resume is extensive and highlighted by his starting World Series-clinching games in 2002 (Angels) and '13 (Red Sox). In '02, he became the first rookie pitcher to win a World Series Game 7 since 1909 (Babe Adams). Eleven years later, Lackey spoiled the Cardinals' pursuit of a 12th World Series championship.
Lackey, who has a career 3.08 postseason ERA, leads all active pitchers with 117 postseason innings, and with Friday's start, he'll top all active pitchers with 19 playoff starts over seven different postseasons.
"The fact that he's been able to be on this stage and has had success on this stage, there are just so many different things that he has brought to the club this year that makes him a pretty obvious choice," manager Mike Matheny said. "We needed a veteran presence to lead this staff, especially when Waino went down, and John Lackey has been that guy in not just experience, but also how he's gone about his business and the way he's pitched."
The July 31, 2014, trade that brought Lackey to the NL for the first time in his career also rejuvenated him. For the Cardinals, it meant another veteran presence in a relatively young rotation (particularly sans Wainwright) and the opportunity to retain him for the Major League minimum this season.
Though the Cardinals did, in good faith, rework Lackey's 2015 contract to include performance incentives, they've gotten more than their money's worth from his efforts. And as good as Lackey was from start to finish in 2015, he was at his best at home, where he may start as many as two games in this NLDS. He lines up to be the team's Game 5 starter, if the series goes that deep.
All 17 of Lackey's home starts were quality ones, and he went at least seven innings deep in all but two. Lackey finished with nine wins and a 1.93 ERA at Busch Stadium.
"He's a guy who has two World Series rings, and that pretty much says it all," starter Lance Lynn said. "He's been there, done that. When you have Wainwright go down and then to see the season [Lackey] had, you knew he was capable of it, because he's done it before. But to be able to do that and be the anchor for us as guys had their ups and downs this year, he was our steady guy all year."
"He's been the constant, every-five-days, deep-in-the-game, save-the-bullpen guy you could absolutely count on every time," added Wainwright. "He's just been the model of consistency. That's who you want out there."
Friday will mark the fifth time in Lackey's career that he has been tabbed a Game 1 starter for a postseason series.
"It's definitely nice to be the guy to kind of start things off and hopefully get things rolling in the right direction, and, you know, hopefully build some momentum for the team to carry it through the series," Lackey said.