As he casually strolled back to the home dugout, having just whiffed WAR hero Josh Donaldson with a biting curveball to close a flawless first frame, Jon Lester had thrown 686 pitches on the season – barely 13 percent of which had been flung while enjoying a lead. Through six starts his teammates had totaled only 12 runs in his outings, and just nine of those had been scored while the lefty was still in the game, so the pitch on which he punched out Donaldson was his 594th with the Red Sox either tied or trailing.
But it was the last he’d throw on Saturday.
Jonny Gomes hit his club’s third grand slam in eight days after Boston’s first three batters reached base ahead of him, then the Sox slugged a couple more homers off Oakland starter Tommy Milone -- and that was way more than enough for Lester, who yielded only one hit while striking out a career-high 15 in eight scoreless innings as the Red Sox beat the West-leading Athletics, 6-3.
“It’s pretty nice,” Gomes said of the feeling of hitting the Sox’ second grand slam in two days. “It’s a lot more nice to be able to give Jon Lester that four-run lead going into the second, to get a little bit pressure off him to where he feels he doesn’t have to be perfect.
“We saw how that worked out with him. He was pretty unbelievable today.”
With the win, the Red Sox beat the American League’s best team of 2014’s opening month for the second consecutive day, and thereby clinched victory in a series that has, at the least, shown that the AL’s best team of 2013 is still capable of playing with anybody when its pitchers are performing up to expectation and its hitters are capitalizing on opportunities.
Now, at 15-16, they’ll go into Sunday’s finale with a trio of other opportunities: the season’s first series sweep, the season's first three-game winning streak, and returning to .500 for the first time since April 4.
“Four early is huge for any pitcher,” Lester said after setting a new team record for strikeouts by a lefty in a nine-inning game. “You know you don’t have to be as fine.”
Lester was plenty fine anyway, and by hanging a half-dozen on Milone – who has now allowed 13 earned runs, including six homers, in 8.2 career innings against the Red Sox – the Red Sox scored at least five runs for the 10th time in their last 13 games, and a night after busting out fairly late they got started early.
Dustin Pedroia led off with a walk, then Xander Bogaerts lined a single over shortstop before Milone issued another walk, this one to David Ortiz. That loaded the bases before there was an out, and though Milone struck out cleanup man Mike Napoli, he followed that by hanging a bender on his first pitch to Gomes.
The left-fielder didn’t miss it, lining a shot of which the only question was whether it would be high enough to clear the left-field wall. It was, landing in the Monster Seats, and quickly the Sox had a 4-0 lead.
“Runner at third, less than two outs, just looking for something bottom-half of the ball that I can elevate,” said Gomes, the former Athletic who said he knew Oakland was going to attack him in the zone, so he swung at all eight pitches he saw Saturday. “Worst-case scenario, sac fly. Best, it goes out.”
The best-case scenario played out, then two innings later the lead became 5-0 in the third, when Ortiz mashed his sixth homer of the year – and third in two games against Milone – to right. Then it grew again, to 6-0, when David Ross launched another solo shot to left in the fourth. But with the way Lester was throwing, it appeared as though the Sox probably had everything they needed offensively.
Craig Gentry had singled to right leading off the third, and subsequently stole second, but he wound up being the lone A’s runner to reach scoring position until Lester gave way to Chris Capuano in the ninth, as Oakland had a hard enough time making contact against the starter, let alone stringing hits or mounting rallies.
Tying Smokey Joe Wood for third on the Sox’ all-time list with his 18th double-digit strikeout game, Lester struck out every Athletic at least once, whiffing at least two of them in six of his eight innings, and fanning the side in both the third and the eighth. He walked Derek Norris twice, though the first time he erased any potential threat by inducing a double play, then the second time he stranded the A’s catcher at first by striking out Josh Reddick for a third time.
That came in the eighth, on his 119th and final pitch, which was 93 mph and perfectly pinned on the outside corner.
“From the get-go he was hitting his corners,” Ross said. “He’s the ace of the staff, one of the best lefties in the game. I expect a performance similar to that every time he steps on the mound, that’s how good he is.”
Once Lester was done things got dicey for the Sox, as Capuano’s 15-inning (season-long) scoreless streak evaporated quickly when he allowed four baserunners on the eight pitches he threw, and Oakland got the tying run to the plate after Koji Uehara walked the first man he faced.
But after Ross threw away a potential 1-2-3 double play on the next man, Uehara responded by retiring the next two Oakland batters. The last was a liner squared up nicely by ex-Sox Brandon Moss, but it was hit directly at Jackie Bradley Jr. in right field, so Uehara notched his seventh save, and Lester had his third win – which could be fourth or fifth if he’d had a bit more support along the way.
“The combination of power and command was impressive,” manager John Farrell said of Lester. “He was locked in, seemingly from the first pitch of the game. He maintained his stuff throughout. Four pitches for strikes, and three of those on both sides of the plate. He was in command from the start.”