By Bruce Levine–
(CBS) It appeared the cowboy might ride off into the sunset without the chance to be a postseason difference-maker, but after Cubs right-hander John Lackey’s instrumental role in an NL Central-clinching performance Wednesday night, that line of thinking may be on the backburner.
The 38-year-old Lackey fired six innings of one-run ball in his team’s 5-1 win against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, a victory that sealed the division crown and sent the Cubs to the postseason for the third straight year. They’ll face the Nationals in the National League Division Series starting Oct. 6.
With his quality performance, Lackey may have gone from playoff afterthought to earning a role — if not as a rotation member, then from out of the bullpen.
All season long, Lackey declined to reveal what his plans were beyond this season as retirement talk swirled around him. Left-hander Jon Lester, one of Lackey’s good friends, hinted at that being Lackey’s path amid a raucous postgame locker room scene Wednesday night.
“Here is to one hell of a career,” Lester said in taking a moment to give Lackey a shoutout.
The Cubs then saluted Lackey by dousing him in beer and champagne.
“There were a lot of things to think about tonight,” Lackey said later, another nod to Lester confirming that this was his last regular-season start.
While his 4.56 ERA for the season was ordinary, Lackey provided the Cubs what they needed most of the time: a chance to win. They did that often when he took the mound in the past three months, going 12-2 in the last 14 games he started.
Lackey was in his best form in the clincher, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out three and being in command. The performance came after he’d failed to get out of the fifth inning of his past two starts, though one of those was due to an ejection.
For at least this night, Lackey was just relishing the scene.
“Every one of these is special,” Lackey said Wednesday night. “I told these young kids not to take any of these for granted. If you think this is something easy, it is time for you to go home.”
Depending on what the Cubs want to do with their playoff roster, it’s possible Wednesday marked the final pitch Lackey will throw in his career. If so, he’ll leave a lasting legacy of fire, intensity, durability and big-game performances in a career that dates back to 2002 and includes three championships.
The Cubs targeted Lackey in free agency ahead of the 2016 season as part of their plan to add the final veteran pieces for a championship run. Lackey came to Chicago at the same time Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist did, and they accomplished their goal with a title in 2016, fulfilling a mantra of Lackey’s.
“I didn’t come here for a haircut,” Lackey famously said during the 2016 regular season. “I came here for jewelry.”
With Lester and right-hander Jake Arrieta working back from injuries and having some rough September outings, could Lackey still be on the Cubs’ 25-man roster for the NLDS? Only the front office and manager Joe Maddon know that answer, which we’ll find out next week.
Whether he does or not, the Cubs are thankful for what the gritty Lackey has meant to them.
“He is all about winning,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said earlier this season.
It seems likely Lackey will retire at season’s end. If he does, the Cubs will be losing some of their edge. Lackey was reliable in Chicago, making 59 starts in the past two seasons.
If Wednesday was his final one, we’ll remember that it came in typical Lackey style, as he was still fuming later with Maddon’s decision to remove him after six strong innings.
“There was no way I should have been taken out of that game,” an irritated Lackey told reporters amid a celebratory, beer-chugging, champagne-spraying postgame atmosphere. “I was dealing tonight.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.