This was not the same Jon Lester who threw a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals last May. This was someone better.
Lester’s fastball exploded into Jason Varitek’s mitt at 98 mph in the first inning on Saturday, a velocity reading that had never been seen on a pitch he’d thrown. For the rest of the night, his four-seam fastball hovered around 94-97 mph with tremendous precision.
Yet that was just one of his weapons. Lester was painting with a dazzling array of pitches, and the results were stunning.
“His stuff from the get-go was powerful. He had power without trying,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “He was so good early, arm side, with his fastball. Then he opens up the plate (for his) two-seamer, cutter, occasional changeup, curveball. He had it working. You could tell, right from the get-go. It was fun to watch.”
Lester retired the first 19 Rangers hitters before finally yielding a double to left-center to Michael Young with one out in the seventh on a 95 mph fastball. Lester lost his bid at both perfection and a no-hitter, and later, he would lose his shutout as well. No matter.
On a night when, as Mike Lowell said, Lester “definitely had no-hit stuff,” he came just short of becoming the first pitcher in 35 years to log a second no-hitter by the age of 25. (Steve Busby was the last to accomplish the feat, pitching no-nos in 1973 and 1974 at ages 23 and 24.) Nonetheless, what Lester accomplished – a complete-game two-hitter with 11 strikeouts on just 107 pitches – was extraordinary.
A few noteworthy elements to absorb from the performance:
LESTER IS ON THE SHORT LIST FOR THE TITLE OF “GUY WITH THE BEST STUFF IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE”
The Rangers had no chance. Lester elicited a mind-blowing 21 swings and misses -- for some pitches, a month’s worth of whiffs -- during his complete game.
In the first three innings, Lester dominated the Rangers solely on the strength of his fastball and curve, both swing-and-miss pitches. Then, for his second trip through the lineup, he unsheathed a cutter that resulted in many a meager whiff. Finally, over the final innings, Lester started spinning changeups that had the Texas hitters swinging (and gasping) for air.
This was a night when Lester had four plus pitches. The number of hurlers who can make such a claim is extremely short. The list of pitchers with such an arsenal is very, very short.
In the American League, Lester joins a select group of pitchers -- Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, A.J. Burnett -- in a conversation about the pitchers with the most dominating arsenals.
“The cutter will bore in on right-handed hitters and the changeup has some fade away from right-handed hitters,” said pitching coach John Farrell. “It begins to spread the plate, to the view of the hitter, even more than the 17 inches that home plate is. Not to mention the additional separation from his fastball that, if he (does) not (have) pinpoint control, have a little bit more margin for error.”
IT WOULD APPEAR THAT LESTER HAS TURNED THE CORNER
For perhaps the first time all year, Lester seemed truly happy with one of his starts. That is no small feat given the standards to which the pitcher holds himself.
Francona describes Lester as a perfectionist who is prone to bouts of self-flagellation when his results do not match his exceedingly high expectations. And so it came as little surprise that Lester publicly beat himself up as his ERA soared over 6, both when enduring a loss in Seattle on May 15 to drop to 2-4 and again when he lost in Minnesota to fall to 3-5 on May 26.
All along, Lester’s pitches had shown the sort of life that suggested that he was capable of dominance. Now, it appears that the regularity with which he is making his pitches do what he wants them to do -- missing below the strike zone rather than up in it, for instance -- is becoming more frequent.
Saturday’s complete-game victory gave Lester wins in consecutive starts for the first time this year. In those two games, Lester has struck out 23 batters in 15 innings, in the process becoming the first Sox pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2004 to fan 10 or more batters in back-to-back contests. The fact that he was on the mound for the 27th out of the game was a major milestone.
“It’s very satisfying (to throw a complete game),” said Lester. “It’s tiring. It’s a lot of hard work to get big-league hitters out whether it be for one inning or for nine. It’s mentally an physically taxing, but I think mentally right now this is a big boost for me. Hopefully I can carry it over to my next (start).”
Lester’s record is now 5-5, and his 5.09 ERA is moving towards respectability. The Sox believe that the 25-year-old has moved from the struggle phase of the season to a very different one.
“He’s the type of pitcher who has dominating stuff every time he takes the mound. With the exception of maybe a couple starts this year, I think that’s been the case,” said pitching coach John Farrell. “Now, the execution within the strike zone is clearly becoming much more consistent. His game plans have been outstanding and he’s been able to execute it of late from start to finish.”
The difference in mound demeanor in Lester’s most recent two starts has been palpable. The Sox are hopeful that they are now witnessing the beginning of a roll along the lines of what the left-hander showed over the final five months of last year.
“He was fighting it early on, kind of like he did last year,” said manager Terry Francona. “It looks like he’s starting to get on a roll. He’s pounding the strike zone. His tempo is quicker. It’s a good sign for us.”
LESTER IS GETTING BETTER, AND STILL HAS ROOM TO GROW
Lester is still adding to what he can do.
“He is continuing to learn Jon Lester,” catcher Jason Varitek said of a 25-year-old teammate who is in his fourth big-league season.
That has been especially true of the pitcher’s changeup this year. Though it has been Lester’s fourth best pitch for much of the year, he continued to use it. On Saturday, it was not merely something meant to offer a different look but a weapon for the left-hander, suggesting that he is still finding new ways to shut down opposing teams that he did not have a year ago.
“It was a pitch we spent time on in spring training. We got hurt on it a little bit earlier in the year, and it’s helped him at times. It’s a developmental pitch for him,” said Varitek, who said he “absolutely” sees Lester’s stuff continuing to develop. “He went nowhere near that pitch last year. And he had nowhere near the sinker (in 2007) that he had last year.
“That’s the reason why I say, he’s still developing,” said Varitek. “That’s pretty neat. And it’s a pretty neat thing to be a part of it.”
THE RANGERS WERE LEFT TO WONDER WHAT-IF
Back in the day, Lester nearly became a member of the Rangers.
The left-hander was a spare part that the Sox included in the agreed-upon deal that would have brought Alex Rodriguez to Boston and sent Manny Ramirez to Texas prior to the 2004 season. The Players’ Association ultimately vetoed the deal (over financial concessions made by Rodriguez), Lester stayed in Boston, and now he is doing things that no other southpaw has accomplished as a Red Sox in at least two decades.
Texas had a first-hand account of what they nearly had in that trade on Saturday. It seems obvious to suggest that the Rangers would have been able to find a place in the rotation for Lester had they managed to acquire him.
LESTER IS A FREAKISHLY STRING PITCHER WHO GETS BETTER AT A TIME WHEN HIS PEERS ARE STARTING TO WILT
The trajectory is familiar. In 2008, Lester became increasingly over the course of the season. His fastball velocity enjoyed a steady upswing as the year progressed, peaking in September, when he flashed 96 and even 97 mph offerings.
On Saturday, two months into the 2009 season, he offered evidence that he might be prepared to do the same thing. The 98 mph reading that showed up on the scoreboard at Fenway in the first inning on Saturday was a first of its kind in a Lester outing.
At this point in the season, despite the enormous workload that he endured in 2008, there are no questions about Lester’s strength. To the contrary, the Sox believe that he is once again becoming more powerful as the season progresses.
“He seems to have an ability as he gets into the season to get stronger,” said Francona. “We saw it last year and now we’re starting to see it again this year. That’s good for us. As he accumulates innings it seems like his delivery allows him to throw a little bit harder with better movement and then he feels better about himself, which is understandable.”
Here are four other things unrelated to Lester’s brilliance that we learned during Saturday’s 8-1 Red Sox victory over the Rangers:
LESTER’S OUTING MAY NOT HAVE BEEN THE MOST IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT OF THE NIGHT FOR THE SOX
For Lester, an outing like Saturday’s seemed more a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’ proposition. The same has not always seemed true of David Ortiz.
The year-long struggles of the Sox’ slugger have been exhaustively chronicled. For that reason, Ortiz’ second homer of the 2009 campaign -- a shot that glanced off the Pesky Pole for what was, in all likelihood, the shortest homer of his Red Sox career -- represented a huge development.
Yet that homer -- which came when Ortiz ripped an 83 mph changeup down the line -- was not his most noteworthy hit of the game. Instead, that honor went to a second-inning single off of Rangers rookie Derek Holland.
Holland featured stuff that was nearly as explosive as that of Lester. The tall, rangy left-hander was firing mid-90s fastballs that were jumping through the strike zone.
This was precisely the sort of match-up that has seemed all but hopeless for Ortiz this season. Since the start of 2008, Ortiz has struggled against lefties to the point where the Sox have seemed increasingly inclined to bench him against southpaws. And he has simply been unable to catch up to good fastballs this season, with teams feeling that they can beat him with a steady diet of heaters.
But in the bottom of the second, Ortiz managed to turn on a 94 mph fastball from Holland. He ripped the pitch through the shift and into right-center for a single. For most of this year, such an outcome seemed all but impossible to imagine. That Ortiz delivered a solid liner on the pitch was a potentially significant sign.
“He got to a good pitch and he hit it hard,” said Francona. “When he rounded first, that’s a good sign. When you see him running around like that, I think it creates positive energy.”
(For Ortiz’ thoughts on his night, click here.)
JOHN SMOLTZ IS EVOLVING AS HE NEARS A RETURN TO THE MAJORS
In his fourth start of a rehab assignment and his first appearance for Triple-A Pawtucket, John Smoltz delivered what he described as his best outing to date. The 42-year-old was masterfully efficient, needing just 74 pitches to punch in with six innings.
The pitcher had an excellent line. He allowed just one hit and one run in his six innings, and afterwards said that he felt that he needed just one more rehab start to be ready for the big leagues. Smoltz, according to Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, will make another appearance on either this coming Thursday or Friday before the team decides on his next step.
Smoltz, whose fastball was mostly in the high-80s and low-90s, topping out at 93 mph, suggested that he is no longer a pitcher who will be able to overpower opponents. Nonetheless, he believes that he is capable – based on the stuff that he has – of adapting his game and remaining successful. Certainly, the results of his rehab assignments (4 starts, 1-0, 1.56 ERA, .148 batting average against, 13 strikeouts and 2 walks in 17.1 innings) suggest as much.
“I feel that in the past people thought that I could rely on stuff to get hitters out. Now I’m going to have to rely on pitching,” said Smoltz. “So far, so good in four starts. Maybe one ball was squared up real good, but I’ve just got to keep it out of the barrel.
“I’m going to be a little bit of a different pitcher than I was in the past,” he added. “I’m going to be a guy that pounds fastballs for strikes. Maybe not blow it by them, but accompanies it with a good split, slider, and curveball and a change that’s coming along so there’s still a lot of things a hitter has to look for and that’s the weapons you want to have when you’re out there and you get in a jam and you feel like you can get out of it. All in all, I’ll ride out of here very happy and hopeful that the recovery continues to go in a positive way.”
(For a complete report on Smoltz' outing, click here.)
THE RED SOX ARE CHEWING UP SOUTHPAWS
The Red Sox have faced a left-handed starter 21 times this year, a mark that is tied for the second highest in the majors and that represents 38 percent of their games. Boston does not seem like it will complain about the development anytime soon.
After they beat Derek Holland and the Rangers, the Sox are now 14-7 when their opponent sends a southpaw to the mound. The team’s .667 winning percentage against left-handed starters is the best in the American League and the third best in the majors.
The team has an .829 OPS (third best in the majors) with 25 homers (2nd in the majors) against lefties with 25 homers. Against righties, the team has a .798 OPS (5th in the majors) and 40 homers (14th).
The Sox are just 19-16 in games started by right-handers this year, suggesting that much of their first-place standing in the A.L. East is due to their success against southpaws.
NICK GREEN STARTS, AND THE RED SOX WIN
It is stating the obvious to suggest that Julio Lugo has not played particularly well this year. Even so, the fact that he is being blamed in New England for the economic downturn, global warming and the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby may be a bit out of line.
Even so, it would be hard to make the case that the Sox are a better team when he starts at shortstop. With Saturday’s win, the Sox improved their record to a phenomenal 22-8 (.733) with Nick Green starting at short, compared to a 9-12 (.429) mark with Lugo starting at the position. Green had little to do with the Sox' victory -- frankly, on a night when Jon Lester was exceptional, the Sox probably could have won by sticking a mannequin at short. Even so, just about everyone seems to have concluded that the Sox' best team is one that features someone other than Lugo in the lineup.
As such, Lugo clearly feels embattled these days, both due to his diminished playing time and because of the criticism of his game that has come from both fans and media. Prior to Saturday’s game, he made clear his feelings about both.
“Are you ok if somebody comes one day and another day you’re not working? Then that’s how I feel,” Lugo said. “You guys (in the media) can say whatever you want, I can take, I can (expletive) take it. I’m a human being, I have feelings but I can take it.
“I go out there and work my (tail) off. I don’t care how many errors or how many strikeouts I’ve got, if I’m 0-for-20, I’m not going to feel sorry for myself. I can go to sleep everyday good because I do my best.”
Mike Petraglia (Boston) and D.J. Bean (Pawtucket) contributed to this article.