Lackey joined the Cubs this past winter as a free agent just one year after Lester signed with the team. The last time they were teammates for a full season was in 2013 for the Boston Red Sox. That team went on to win a World Series, the second championship for both players. Now they’re aiming for a third.
“We’re not here to play 162 and go home,” Lester said at Cubs camp. “We want to do the whole thing.”
The Cubs came close last season, losing to the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, but first they beat Lackey and the St. Louis Cardinals. Fast forward to Saturday, when the pair held a joint news conference on Day 2 of spring training -- one day after throwing a bullpen session next to each other and a few minutes after they finished working out together. They’re as tight as any two teammates, both on and off the field.
“Our wives are friends,” Lackey said. “It’s a full family deal for sure.”
And there’s a hope that Lackey can bring out the best in Lester -- not that he was all that bad last season. But Lester and people around him think there’s another level of performance to achieve in his second year with the Cubs. Lester is a “comfort” guy. The thought is the more familiar he is with his surroundings, the better he’ll be. A second year in the NL with the addition of Lackey might be the difference he needs.
“Jon Lester likes to have people around him he’s familiar with,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think Lackey is a perfect foil in a sense. Lackey is going to tell Lester what he thinks all the time. I think they’re going to have an open and honest conversation.”
The two pitchers concurred.
“When you know people as well as we know each other you can definitely talk to each other a little bit different than you talk to everyone else,” Lester said. “There’s no sugarcoating anything around us. You probably don’t want to be in on a lot of conversations that we have.”
Maybe it’ll be Lackey who pushes the right buttons in helping Lester slow down opponents on the basepaths. Lester gave up the most stolen bases in baseball last season, although Maddon didn’t think it hurt the Cubs all that much.
“I don’t believe it was a huge factor regarding our success or failures,” he said. “Jon wants to keep hammering at it. I’m not going to make a big deal out of it.”
Maddon is probably right, but that doesn’t mean that flaw can’t hurt the Cubs more this time around if teams are willing to take advantage of it. Lester continues to work on his pickoff throws, beginning with drills on Friday. But more than anything, the two pitchers simply know how to push each other. The Cubs are counting on that for the next seven months, starting in April.
“The ways you win championships haven’t changed,” Lackey said. “We both won a couple; hopefully we can bring some of those things here.”
As far as Lackey’s infamous edgy attitude, he reiterated his stance from the Cubs' fan convention in January: Four out of five days he’s a nice guy, but on the day he pitches he’s a little different. Maddon knows about that edge, having coached him as a rookie in Anaheim, and he wants to see it on the Cubs.
“His attitude and the way he goes about his business will be felt by the other guys, in a positive way,” Maddon said.
Were the Cubs missing an edge last season? It’s hard to say they were missing anything considering how far they got in the postseason, but everyone around the team has stressed that chemistry changes from year to year. Maybe Lackey is joining the team at a perfect time since this is the year complacency could creep into the conversation -- as far-fetched as that might seem for a franchise that hasn’t won in 107 years.
“I think it’s helped me for sure,” Lackey said of his edge. “It’s not going anywhere. It’s there.”
Reporters and fans probably won’t see it much during spring training, as camp is “laid back” under Maddon, according to Lackey. The intensity is there, but not the bristling kind which Lackey can display after a bad start or before a big one. Right now everyone is enjoying each other’s company.
“I’m enjoying watching it and I can see where it’s good for Lester,” Maddon said. “The combination of Lackey and David [Ross] have the opportunity to bring out the best in Jon Lester.
“They’re vibrating on the same level, professionally.”
While the Cubs rebuilt their team with youth, there are a few veterans who will have to lead the way. Lackey and Lester did it in Boston and will try to replicate that magic with the Cubs. As you might expect from world-class athletes who are also good friends, there’s a competition between them. Forget about pitching; "Who’s better at the plate?" will be a season-long narrative for them. In fact, Lester earned his first career hit off of Lackey last year -- but Lackey was quick to point out he won the game.
“Then I went over to his house and he cooked me dinner,” Lackey joked. “It was great.”
Lester responded: “I got his autograph and it wasn’t pretty what was written on it.”
Then they got serious for a moment.
“Just because we have fun doesn’t mean we’re going to win,” Lester pointed out before being interrupted by Lackey.
“But it’s always fun when you win,” Lackey said with a smile.