OAKLAND – The numbers were decent, but there are more dominant days ahead for Jon Lester with the A’s than what we saw Saturday.
His impact was felt not so much in the stats he posted in his Oakland debut, but the energy and hope that he instilled. Every two-strike count he reached against a hitter was met with raucous cheers from the Coliseum crowd. The excitement and anticipation was palpable, and it registered not only with those in the stands and in the press box, but with the players on the field.
”I don’t think it’s any secret that Oakland A’s fans, and everyone, has been waiting for a star-studded guy like this to come into the organization. Usually they’re going out,” catcher Derek Norris said following the A’s 8-3 victory over Kansas City. “It was the same thing when (Jeff) Samardzjia came in and (Scott) Kazmir. (Fans) get excited about that kind of stuff . And we do too.”
It’s get-acquainted time for the A’s and their new lefty ace, who arrived Friday after the blockbuster trade that sent him and Jonny Gomes from the Red Sox to the A’s in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes. Everyone is well aware of Lester’s sterling career resume, but after just two days with the team, his work ethic and preparation are making an impression too.
“I think anytime you get a guy of this caliber that has the competitive nature and emotion, its’ gonna wear off on guys, because guys look up to guys like that,” Norris said. “It’s not just pitchers, but players in general, myself included. When you see a guy like that, you wanna work harder for him and lay out that extra effort. I think it rubs off, for sure.”
Lester, 30, had spent his entire eight-year career with Boston -- winning two World Series titles -- before Thursday’s trade, though he knew he was rumored to be headed somewhere. That’s made for an adjustment over the past two days, learning new teammates, new clubhouse staff…Lester still hasn’t nailed down a permanent place for his family to live.
He said the warm ovation he got from the crowd as he emerged from the dugout Saturday to go warm up meant the world. Then he held the Royals to three runs over 6 2/3 innings, walking three and striking out one, and left to a standing ovation, tipping his cap as he walked off the field.
Lester has played before some of the most devoted fans in the majors at Fenway Park. The Coliseum crowd made a good first impression.
“We all know how hectic and chaotic it can be here,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to be on the other side of it and see these fans go crazy and really love the A’s.”
The A’s welcomed their new starter with an eight-run rally in the fifth that gave Lester an 8-1 cushion. Partly because he had to sit so long through that inning, manager Bob Melvin wasn’t going to let him pitch very deep. He came to get Lester after Christian Colon’s RBI single with two outs in the seventh. Lester’s pitch count was 104.
“Nice goin’, big fella,” Melvin told him.
Melvin also joked that he was a little scared to bring the hook in the middle of an inning. That speaks to the competitiveness Lester is known for, and he provided a window into his mental outlook after the game.
“It aggravates me more when the manager has to come get me because I feel like I didn’t get my guys back in the dugout,” he said. “I’ve never liked that feeling of walking off a mound in the middle of an (inning). I’d rather be able to shake the manager’s hand in the dugout.”
Gomes, who enjoyed a two-RBI game in his first start back with the A’s, sensed how important it was for Lester to have a good outing with his new team. And he was impressed that Lester didn’t try to do too much.
“This is his first time pitching professionally outside of a Red Sox uniform,” Gomes said. “The crowd got behind him right out of the gate. The Coliseum was aware that Jon Lester’s in the house.
“That’s actually tough to toe the rubber and not turn it into a job interview, not throw your fastball too hard,” Gomes said. “ He settled down. … I like our chances with a seven-run lead and him on the hill.”