Lackey looking to give Cubs competitive edge

Veteran right-hander pitches with attitude, desire to win every 5th day

Lackey looking to give Cubs competitive edge

MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs felt good about the physical talent on the roster, such as youngsters like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. But something was missing. That's where John Lackey comes in.

Manager Joe Maddon saw Lackey when he was breaking into the big leagues with the Angels and in his early 20s. Now Lackey is 37, he's won World Series games, he's overcome Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, and he has that edge.

"When we signed Lackey in the offseason, I thought he was one of the top free agent signs of the winter, and specifically for us and what we're doing," Maddon said.

Breakout Player: Cubs' Russell takes game to new level

Lackey is the Cubs' X-factor this season. He brings an attitude on the mound that opponents hate, but his teammates love.

Jon Lester first met Lackey when the two pitched for the Red Sox in 2010. They'd had their battles in the postseason before that.

"I'll be the first one to tell you nobody in that dugout liked him, just because of how competitive he is and all the emotions he has on the field," Lester said.

"When he's on the mound, he's a bully," said Jason Heyward, who has played against Lackey and was his teammate with the Cardinals in 2015.

However, Maddon said Lackey may have mellowed. Lackey scoffed at that.

"Not every five days, probably not," the right-hander said. "Four out of five days, I'm pretty laid back and having a good time. When you only get 30 some times to help your team, I take it pretty dang serious and go get after it."

Lackey downplays the edginess element.

"It's not going anywhere," he said. "It's just there."

Rizzo and Bryant were happy not to have to face Lackey any more, and both relayed that to the new Cubs pitcher.

"I don't think I want a hitter to want to face me," Lackey said. "Obviously, I compete on the field and I get after it, and I know how that can be perceived sometimes. I think people find out I'm a lot different than they think I am, which is fine. In between the lines, I don't care what the other team thinks about me. I'm there to win."

And that's what the Cubs need. Lackey will be slotted behind Jake Arrieta and Lester in the rotation, and arrives possibly in better shape now than he was when he pitched for the Red Sox. Last season, Lackey went 13-10 with a 2.77 ERA in 33 starts, totaling 218 innings.

The Cubs know him only too well. In the National League Division Series last October, Lackey beat the Cubs in Game 1, giving up two hits over 7 1/3 scoreless innings. But the Cubs answered in Game 4, knocking the right-hander out after three innings in a 6-4 Chicago win.

"You hate playing against him," Arrieta said. "You see his emotions on the mound. It just shows this guy wants to win and he cares about winning. He's not intentionally trying to show his teammates up. It's his competitive nature on display. We all have that to a certain extent. This guy has been around for 14 years. That's his game is winning."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.