On the mound and at the plate, Lackey delivers just what Cardinals need

ST. LOUIS — A lineup without its top two hitters and a depleted Cardinals bullpen both got exactly what they needed from the new veteran leader of the St. Louis rotation.

After a season-ending injury to Adam Wainwright, 36-year-old John Lackey holds seniority by nearly 10 years over his fellow starters. But the right-hander says he’s feeling as strong as ever, and it showed as he dominated the Cubs for a 5-1 series-clinching win Thursday afternoon at Busch Stadium.

"John did the bullpen a great favor," manager Mike Matheny said. "Everybody knows we needed a good outing here today. We needed somebody to take us deep and give us a good shot."

A crowd of 44,472 showed its appreciation for Lackey’s efforts with a standing ovation when he left in the top of the eighth after giving up just one run on five hits in 7 2/3 innings. Cubs hitters maintained their major league lead by striking out 10 times against Lackey, the most he’s had since joining the Cardinals in a trade-deadline deal last July.

Lackey even delivered his first hit of the season with an RBI double down the right-field line to spark an offense without third baseman Matt Carpenter and left fielder Matt Holliday, both of whom took a well deserved day off. Peter Bourjos and Mark Reynolds filled in admirably with three hits and one run each in the first four innings to give Lackey plenty of cushion.

Addison Russell’s leadoff single in the third inning served as the Cubs’ only hit until Chris Coghlan’s one-out double in the sixth, which could have created some trouble with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo due up. Instead, Lackey struck out two of Chicago’s top home-run threats to keep cruising on a day when he threw 80 of his 109 pitches for strikes.

"You’ve got different things against different teams," Lackey said. "Today just happened to be the slider was pretty good and I was locating the fastball pretty good, getting ahead and had some opportunities with two strikes and ran into a couple (strikeouts)."

He set the tone and the Cardinals took a 2-0 lead in the second inning, then stretched it to 5-0 before Lackey surrendered his only run in the seventh. Lackey earned his second win of the season, the first for a Cardinals starter in eight games. The bullpen had to come in before the sixth inning twice in that span, and three extra-inning wins forced relievers to throw 36 innings over those eight games.

Lackey knew the situation and had little left to give when he finally yielded to Kevin Siegrist following Bryant’s third strikeout of the day. It ended the second-longest start of the season for a St. Louis pitcher, behind only Wainwright’s eight-inning win over Cincinnati in April.

The Cardinals’ 33-year-old ace will return to the clubhouse on crutches soon and surely provide some of the leadership to which his teammates have become accustomed, at least during home games. But Wainwright’s absence on the mound still leaves a void, and Matheny considers Lackey one of the top candidates to fill it.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.