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OAKLAND – Much has been made about Jon Lester’s big-game experience, his postseason track record and the seasoning he brings to the A’s rotation.
One thing he doesn’t know much about is acclimating to new surroundings.
So as the analysis pours in regarding what Lester means to Oakland during this stretch run, understand that the big lefty is still navigating uncharted waters personally.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Lester goes the distance, A's beat Twins 3-0]
He’d never changed teams in his eight-year major league career until his July 31 trade from the Red Sox to the A’s, and it means a lot for him to succeed in his new uniform.
That was clear from his comments after he’d finished off the fourth shutout of his career in Thursday’s 3-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins. He knows the departure of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes – for whom he was traded – left a gap as far as the A’s fan base is concerned. Filling that hole is no easy task.
“We all know what Cespedes did for this organization and how well he’s liked and everything,” Lester said. “Just coming over here, you don’t want to screw that up. You want to make the trade look like it had a purpose.”
There’s no better way to win over the Coliseum faithful, and his new teammates, than by spinning a three-hit shutout. Thursday’s victory may have been merely the opener of a four-game series against the cellar-dwellers from the American League Central, but Lester’s effort was everything the A’s envisioned getting from him.
It came on the heels of a loss to Tampa Bay, with the offense still struggling to right itself. With the A’s in the middle of a 17-game stretch with no days off, his 122-pitch effort gave the bullpen a much-needed break.
Closer Sean Doolittle was ready to go in the bottom of the ninth. Manager Bob Melvin told himself he wouldn’t let Lester go past 120 pitches, so he was happy to see his lefty close it out with a called strikeout of Josh Willingham.
“That was his last hitter,” Melvin said. “My heart was beating over there. I was glad he did it … I probably wouldn’t let anybody else get to that. But he’s been there before, and that’s why we got him here.”
Before the guessing game began on whether Lester would go the distance, the storyline was whether he’d make a run at his second career no-hitter, or something even bigger. He took a perfect game into the sixth inning, though ex-Athletic Kurt Suzuki broke it up by lining a fastball for a leadoff single over the head of shortstop Eric Sogard.
Five innings of perfect baseball isn’t particularly earth-shaking, but with Lester, something historic never really seems out of the realm of possibility.
“It’s around that time when you go out for the sixth, everybody gets real quiet and keeps their thoughts to themselves,” Melvin said. “I’m looking at my card -- 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 -- and he was doing it fairly easily.”
Lester, who no-hit the Kansas City Royals in May 2008, was quite aware of the situation.
“Anybody who says they didn’t know they had a perfect game or a no-hitter until the eight inning is probably lying,” he said.
There was no secret to Thursday’s success. He got ahead with a lot of first-pitch strikes. And against an aggressive hitting team like Minnesota, he was successful pitching to contact early in counts.
So efficient was Lester that Sogard swore that he didn’t realize the ninth had arrived until the first out of that inning was recorded. After getting the final out, Lester didn’t display much in the way of emotion.
“I’m not gonna jump around like an imbecile,” he deadpanned. “I’ve always been a big believer in, ‘Act like you’ve done it before.’”
But that’s the point. When it comes to joining a new team in the heat of a pennant race, Lester hasn’t done it before. The man may not show much emotion on the outside, but rest assured Thursday’s gem meant as much to him as it did to his new team.