John Lackey's "big-boy games" comment three months ago might have triggered some snickers, but his knack for performing at his best in significant games might be as important as any postseason factor for the Cubs.
"A lot of people don't realize who John Lackey is and has been over the past few years," said Giants right-hander Jake Peavy, who watched his former teammate pitch the sixth and clinching game of 2013 World Series for the Red Sox.
"John Lackey was St. Louis' No. 1 guy (in 2015), the guy they leaned on. We would have been down 2-1 (in the 2013 American League Championship Series), but that same John Lackey beat Justin Verlander in Detroit. You know what those Detroit teams were made of. And you've done something to beat them 1-0 on the road."
Lackey will start tonight's Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
Lackey, 37, has been accustomed to the big stage, dating to his rookie year with the Angels when he pitched five innings of one-run ball to beat the Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series and give Joe Maddon — then an Angels coach — a bonus large enough to help pay for his daughter's wedding.
Lackey's no-nonsense demeanor surfaced well before his World Series debut. But he has acknowledged how fortunate he has been to pitch on contending teams and how precious those moments are.
"I was one of only a few rookies when I came up," Lackey said. "It's different now. The expectation level is high, which I've been used to for my whole career. Luckily, I've been on a lot of good teams.
"It's something we've embraced and have played very well."
The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Lackey is in better shape now than he was during his first four seasons with the Angels, Maddon said.
"He's the same good friend with the same kind of intensity and edginess," the Cubs manager said. "His velocity came back post-surgery (in 2012). I see 83-84 mph on the breaking ball. I think it was 82 when I had him in 2002. His fastball cut more back then, but it's almost identical to now."
It's not uncommon for Lackey to show emotion on the mound, as he did when rookie centerfielder Albert Almora Jr. didn't hit the cutoff man in a June game and Christian Bethancourt admired a home run he hit off Lackey in a 1-0 loss to the Padres in May.
"He's your best teammate ever," Maddon said. "He's just got an edge when he plays. And if you all know that and accept that, then you can co-habitat with him well.
"When he gets upset out there, it's nothing negative. It's just the emotion of the moment. If you took that away from him, he might not be as good as he actually is. "
Said catcher David Ross: "Some people can play this game emotionless. I don't think he's one of those guys. He expects perfection from himself — and greatness out of himself and his teammates."
Yet there's a friendly, team-oriented side to Lackey that some don't see. When infielder Munenori Kawasaki was promoted from Triple-A Iowa to join the team in Pittsburgh last July, Lackey went out of his way to greet him in the visitor's clubhouse.
"One of my top five teammates of all time, especially with the way he goes about his business," Ross said. "He works. He's on the bench supporting and high-fiving his teammates and talking the game, the whole package.
"He's all about whatever the team is about. If we're going to a team dinner, he's in. If he needs to buy, he'll buy. He's one of those guys you can count on the whole year, and those guys are hard to find."