Make room for the new ace
ANAHEIM, Calif. - Thirty-seven pitches.
Jon Lester threw 37 pitches to get his final six outs. You hear that, you figure there must have been a base runner in there somewhere. But nope, just six Angels batters trying get on base against a 24-year-old lefthander who seems to get better with each passing month, week, or even start.
He was protecting a one-run lead like a mother eagle guarding the nest, and he was prepared to fight. He had been battling from the start, fighting his way through three-ball counts, tough, borderline calls (with two excellent pitchers working the outer regions and with an inordinate amount of check swings, this was a very challenging night for plate umpire Tim Welke), and a tough unearned run, and he had never been able to get locked in completely. Yet here he was, ahead by a 2-1 score after five innings, trying to give his team the seven-inning start that would set the bullpen up properly to finish the job.
Daisuke Matsuzaka won those 18 games and Josh Beckett has that gaudy postseason résumé, but there was simply no arguing the fact that the best Boston starting pitcher this season was Jon Lester. And so it was just not that big a deal that Beckett was not able to start Game 1 of this series. It will be very nice to see Beckett on the mound Sunday in Fenway, sure, but in terms of a chance to win Game 1 here in Anaheim, Jon Lester was the best Terry Francona had to offer.
A year ago, the story line was right out of the Oxygen Network: "Courageous Kid Beats Cancer." And it was capped off by his performance in Game 4 of the World Series, when he gave his skipper 5 2/3 scoreless innings in a 4-3 triumph. But you knew coming into 2008 he'd had enough of the cancer victim scenario. Oh, he would always be affected by his ordeal, which he has been able to turn into a positive life occurrence. But what he wanted most of all was to be judged as a lefthanded major league starting pitcher - no qualifiers.
Then - bang! - 11 starts in, a no-hitter against Kansas City. Of course by that time, we had already had a glimpse of his potential in the form of eight innings of one-hit ball against Toronto April 29. But a no-no is special, and it was really special to the skipper, who has never made much of a secret that Lester is on the verge of breaking into the will.
"You know," Francona said, "any kid that comes up through your organization, it's hard not to have a soft spot as you see him mature in front of your eyes anyway, but then everything he's gone through, it's hard not to - when he threw that no-hitter . . . there is tension and anxiety in the dugout anyway, but then you add the emotion because of who it was, and with the staff and the teammates, and I'm sure you looked up in the booth and saw the ownership and Theo, and we don't hide our feelings for how we feel about our guys."
That feeling is magnified when the player in question is the commodity every team dreams of developing; that is to say a quality lefthanded pitcher you can call your very own. Lester showed some definite promise when he broke into the bigs two years ago and he began to fulfill that promise last year, so much so that he was almost universally being described as the Second Coming of Andy Pettitte.
He got a tough break last night when a two-out error by shortstop Jed Lowrie on a routine grounder off the bat of Vladimir Guerrero led to an unearned run when Torii Hunter dropped a single in front of left fielder Jason Bay, who appeared to be playing somewhere between Disneyland and the Mexican border. Lester's response? A nice, rocking-chair, 1-2-3 fourth, followed by a slightly adventuresome fifth when Mark Teixeira and Guerrero singled with two away. But Hunter tapped back to the box, and that was that.
Lester really began to earn his money in the sixth. Bay had hit a two-run homer off John Lackey in the Red Sox' half of the inning, and that seemed to energize the southpaw. There is nothing more deflating for a team than have its pitcher cough up runs after someone has provided a lead, and Lester was well aware of this. "I was looking for a shutdown inning," he explained.
"Once we took the lead, he really went at it," said Francona,
It did not come easy. Howie Kendrick ran the count to 2-2 and fouled off a pair before striking out on pitch No. 7. Mike Napoli got to 2-2, took a very close pitch for a ball, and whiffed on pitch No. 6. Gary Matthews Jr. ran the count to 3-2, fouled one off, and swung and missed for strike three. That's 20 tough pitches in a one-run game right there.
The seventh was no easier. Erick Aybar got to 2-2 before popping to second. Chone Figgins, a tough out at any time, also got to 2-2 before taking a called third strike. Garret Anderson, among the more wily veterans on the planet and the possessor of two hits his first two times up, hit a hump-backed liner to second on Lester's 37th pitch of the last two innings and 117th of the game.
That may sound like a lot of pitches, but it was of no concern to Francona. "He was throwing the ball really well," said the skipper. "There was no reason to take him out."
Seven is what the manager was looking for, and seven is what he got. Jon Lester had pitched a true staff ace's game, and the Red Sox had a 4-1 win.
Mike Scioscia knew what he had seen. He had seen a very good pitcher.
"If a pitcher gets a lead and comes out and puts up a zero, that's important to keep up momentum, and he did that," said the Angels manager.
He's been doing that all year. No one should be remotely surprised about the way he pitched last night.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.