MILWAUKEE -- When the Chicago Cubs were floundering to a 7-15 stretch before the All-Star break, John Lackey had plenty of company in his clubhouse when it came to struggling starters. After another so-so outing against the Milwaukee Brewers, his recent performance is starting to stand out, and not in a good way.
Not that it's all his fault. Lackey labored a bit through his six innings in Saturday's 6-1 loss to the Brewers, holding Milwaukee to three runs in a quality start, but burning through a season-high 115 pitches to do so. Once again, though, his good work was undermined by ill-timed long balls.
"Johnny, he challenges with his fastball," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Sometimes they hit it out."
In the first inning, with Milwaukee's Ryan Braun on first, Jonathan Lucroy battled Lackey for 11 pitches, the last five of which were foul balls on 3-2 counts, and of course poor Braun was running each pitch on a very hot night. On the 12th pitch, Lucroy blasted a two-run homer.
"Lucroy put a good at-bat on me," Lackey said. "I made a lot of good pitches that AB, and he finally got into one. I felt pretty good for the most part."
Then, light-hitting Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who entered the game batting .195, led off the fourth inning with a homer to center. On a night in which Cubs managed only three hits off of Brewers starter Zach Davies, that was more than enough damage.
"I thought he threw the ball really well," Maddon said of Lackey. "He had really good stuff. If we scored a couple of runs, he's had himself a good night. It just didn't work out. Their guy Davies pitched really well."
After Lucroy walked against Lackey in the third, he had compiled a single, two doubles, two walks and a homer over a stretch of nine plate appearances against Lackey. But it was the home run that is most concerning. Lackey has now given up 10 homers over his past seven starts after giving up only seven during his first 13 outings.
The other big moment in the game for the Cubs was when newly acquired lefty Mike Montgomery came on in the eighth to make his debut with the club. In the short term, Montgomery's mission is to negate opposing lefties in key situations, and this one qualified: With the Cubs down 3-1 and still very much a part of the game, he entered with two out and two on.
The lefty at the plate Montgomery was tasked with extinguishing was that pesky Nieuwenhuis, who had exactly one career homer and a .151 career average in 124 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers. Lo and behold, ahead in the count 3-1, Nieuwenhuis poked a ball to the opposite field that just snuck inside the left-field foul pole for a three-run shot. A very inauspicious and unlikely debut for Montgomery.
"Montgomery, that's just unfortunate," Maddon said. "For your first moment right there. He kind of beats the hitter, but [Nieuwenhuis] keeps the ball fair. I hope he just files that [away] very quickly, because it looked like his stuff was outstanding.
"Nieuwenhuis, he swings the bat well against us, man."
For Lackey, the outing can't really be called a step backward. After all, he gave up 11 runs in 12 innings over his final two starts before the All-Star break. But Lackey rebounded to throw well in his first action after the break, on July 17, against Texas on a windy day at Wrigley Field. Despite the hitter-friendly conditions that day, Lackey held first-place Texas to four runs in eight innings, matching his longest outing of the season.
As in that loss to Texas, Lackey's outing Saturday was solid, just not quite enough to prop up an offense behind him that managed only a single run. Regardless of how the blame is apportioned or if it needs be apportioned at all, this much is true: Lackey hasn't won a decision since June 8, a span of eight starts.
Lackey is certainly in no danger of being yanked from the Cubs' rotation, and in a sense, the perception that he's struggling is a simple byproduct of the anachronistic win statistic even existing. His outing Saturday was better, but it wasn't a win, and Chicago has now dropped six of his past seven starts.
"We're playing fine," Lackey said. "Won a couple of series coming out of the break. We have a chance to win another one tomorrow. Just have to play a little better."
Reason to panic? Certainly not. But chances are, Lackey and the Cubs will breath a whole lot easier if, when he finishes his next start against the White Sox, there is a W plastered after his name in the box score.