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Levine: John Lackey A Key Component To Cubs' Rotation

By Bruce Levine--

MESA, Ariz. (CBS) -- Right-hander John Lackey made his Cubs debut in Cactus League play Friday, allowing five hits and three runs in three innings. While those weren't good numbers, all the Cubs know how important Lackey will be to the team's success in 2016, as he brings a resume of being a warrior and stalwart in his career.

In 2015, the 37-year-old Lackey had a resurgence that's rare to find in older pitchers, going 13-10 with a 2.77 ERA a season after posting a 4.30 ERA. Signing a two-year, $32-million deal with the Cubs this past offseason, the self-assured Lackey said winning a championship was the ultimate driving force in his decision to sign with Chicago.

Lackey knows a thing or two about winning titles. He was the winning pitcher in the championship clinchers for the Angels in 2002 and the Red Sox in 2013. Cubs manager Joe Maddon was the bench coach on that Angels team as well.

"He has not changed a whole lot," Maddon said. "He might have thrown a little bit harder back then. When he was younger, he had this natural cutter that really beat up right-handed hitters on the inside edge. He can still cut the ball, throw a slider, but it used to be such a natural high-velocity pitch."

Expected to be the No. 3 starter behind ace Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, Lackey agreed with Maddon.

"As you get older, you have to take a little bit better care of yourself," Lackey said. "I was pretty much a two-pitch pitcher back then. I can do a lot of different things now. These days if one thing isn't working, I can find something else."

Maddon watched his Cubs get chewed up in a loss to Lackey and the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLDS last season. The command and presence that Lackey has in big games is what the Cubs expect to be a big help this year.

"I went up to him early in camp and told him that he is getting better with age," Maddon said. "You look for decline with guys, especially after having the arm surgery a few years ago in Boston. You think maybe this is it. He is just getting better. It all starts with his delivery. The next component is he really knows what he is doing out there. He will never give into a hitter. He will constantly fight through moments. In so many ways, he is exactly the same. He is in better shape now, maybe minus a couple of miles an hour in velocity. I can look at him at the beginning of a game and say, 'Yeah, he has it going on, it will be a tough night (for batters).'"

The 218 innings that Lackey threw last season convinced the Cubs front office that the has plenty left to help the team's run for a championship. Prior to that, Lackey hadn't thrown 200-plus innings since 2010.

Having 23 postseason appearances, including 20 starts, and two world championship rings made Lackey the ideal offseason pitching addition.

"I just threw fastballs in the first two innings today," Lackey said of Friday's debut, which included four strikeouts and a walk too. "I am trying to gain my arm speed. The third inning, I mixed in a few other things. Right now I am trying to locate the fastball."

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.

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