MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Lackey, Lester love being on same side again

Lackey, Lester love being on same side again

CHICAGO -- Hosting a segment at the Cubs Convention last winter, Ryan Dempster seated John Lackey and Jon Lester on a couch and served them fried chicken and beer. Neither punched their former Red Sox teammate.

Both Lester and Lackey laughed, in fact. They put the ugly ending to the 2011 season behind them long ago, teaming up to help the Red Sox win the World Series in 2013. They're now working side by side to do the same for the Cubs.

Early signs are encouraging.

Following Lester's victory in the Cubs' home opener on Monday night, Lackey took his turn against the Reds on Wednesday on a 43-degree night at Wrigley Field. He didn't have to be great -- not with the Cubs chasing Alfredo Simon in a five-run first inning -- but he was plenty good enough.

Lackey held Cincinnati to two runs in 6 2/3 innings, and the Cubs continued their out-of-the-gates roll, beating the Reds, 9-2, to raise their record to 7-1. They're now 4-0 in the Lester/Lackey starts.

Longtime friends who faced each other in Game 1 of the National League Division Series last season, Lackey and Lester are on the same side again. They're loving it, and so is their team.

"I love walking into a room and seeing them," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon.

But back to Boston, briefly.

You can make a pretty convincing argument that the Cubs wouldn't be where they are today without the Red Sox losing 20 of their last 27 in 2011 -- an epic collapse that was made worse by a subsequent newspaper series that reported the missteps of both players and management, including eating and drinking in the clubhouse during games.

Then-manager Terry Francona left the organization by mutual agreement, and Boston ownership then allowed Theo Epstein to interview for a job with the Cubs.

Epstein not only jumped at the chance to move to Chicago, he eventually recruited Lester and Lackey to follow him. They give the Cubs as reliable a combination of No. 2 and 3 starters as there is in the Majors.

Not to take anything from the young guns who follow Matt Harvey with the Mets and Corey Kluber with the Indians -- or, for that matter, the Giants' 2-3 duo of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija and the Cardinals' combination of Michael Wacha and Mike Leake -- but the resumes of Lester and Lackey speak loudly.

The guys who follow reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta in Maddon's rotation have combined to win 295 games and make 675 regular-season starts. They have 14 wins in the postseason, including five in the World Series.

"It's a nice balance," Maddon said. "Their abilities, their skill sets, their veteranship, the fact they've been on World Series champions. That really matters, man."

As did the hiring of Maddon, Epstein's signing of Lester after 2014 accelerated the timetable for the Cubs, who won 97 games last year after five consecutive losing seasons. Lackey was traded from Boston to St. Louis midway through 2014 and became the Cards' No. 1 starter after Adam Wainwright was lost to injury in April.

Lackey spent a lot of time with Lester when the Cardinals were in Chicago last season. Both Epstein and Lester were in Lackey's ear when he reached free agency in November, and it didn't take him long to say yes to a two-year contract.

During that entertaining segment with Dempster at Cubs Convention, Lester admitted he was anxious throughout the whole process.

"I was the crazy ex-girlfriend," Lester said. "I'm like, 'Should I text him? Should I not text him? What should I say?' It was a little awkward, but we got it done."

Lester considers Lackey "like my brother, part of the family."

Maddon, too, shared a dugout with Lackey before the Cubs signed him.

Maddon was a bench coach for Mike Scioscia in 2002, when the Angels won the World Series, when Lackey won Game 7 over the Giants as a rookie starter. Maddon loves how Lackey carries himself with a Wild West swagger, especially on the days he pitches.

"He's a cowboy, he's competitive," Maddon said. "He's edgy, and I like it."

Although Lackey enjoys being reunited with Lester, he was drawn to the Cubs as much by the narrative that has developed since owner Tom Ricketts hired Epstein and handed him the perfect combination of resources and patience needed to build an organization.

Lackey is 37 now, and he wants another World Series ring to go with the ones he won pitching for the Angels and Red Sox. He also wants to outhit Lester, which shouldn't be that hard, seeing as the lefty is a career .041 hitter.

Lackey got his first hit as a Cub on Wednesday night -- a single through the right side that drove in the last of the five first-inning runs. He left in the seventh to a standing ovation, and even tipped his cap to the crowd.

Lackey's RBI single

"It was awesome, man," Lackey said. "The atmosphere has been sweet. Opening Night, when we won the game, everyone was singing songs and stuff. It's really cool."

This being baseball, there's no telling what the partnership of Lackey and Lester will produce in Chicago. It's way too early to think about anything beyond the ivy turning green and the weather warming up. But you can certainly see what Epstein has in mind.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.