06/07/09 12:52 AM ET
Lightning nearly strikes twice for Lester
Left-hander flirts with perfection, loses bid in seventh
By Maureen Mullen / Special to MLB.com
Jon Lester, who pitched a no-hitter on May 19, 2008, against the Royals at Fenway, took a perfect game into the seventh inning.
"It's hard not to think about [a no-hitter] when you've got the Green Monster out there," Lester said. "It's in your face the whole time. It's hard not to think about it, but I've got to try to continue to execute pitches."
But instead of a perfect game or a no-hitter, Lester (5-5) posted a two-hit, complete-game, 11-strikeout win before 37,828 fans.
With one out in the seventh inning, Michael Young sent Lester's first pitch into left-center field for a double, ending Lester's second brush with baseball history. Lester then walked the next batter, Andruw Jones, on six pitches.
"I was just happy that it was a well-struck ball," Lester said of Young's hit. "It wasn't an infield hit or a blooper or anything like that. So I gave it up to a good hitter."
Young got both of the Rangers' hits in the game, adding a single in the ninth.
"That was just lights-out," Young said of Lester's performance. "That was one of the best games I've seen in my career by a pitcher, topping at 98 [mph], pounding the strike zone. [He] used all his pitches, back-doored his cutter, threw his cutter in, curveball, changeup. You have to give him credit. He flat out threw a good game."
Jones and Elvis Andrus were the only other baserunners for Texas, both reaching on walks. Andrus, the No. 9 batter, who was the only member of the Rangers' lineup not victimized by one of Lester's 11 strikeouts, scored Texas' only run. He led off the ninth with a walk, went to second on Ian Kinsler's groundout, took third on Young's single and scored on Jones' sacrifice fly to Jacoby Ellsbury in center.
"We couldn't find the fat head of our bat, and he left nothing over the middle of the plate," said Rangers manager Ron Washington. "We have to tip our hat, take a shower, and let it go down the drain and come back tomorrow.
"His cutter was the key. He was back-dooring it, and I don't know if the gun was juiced, but he was popping 94, 95, 96 out there. The guy had good stuff, and he was in the strike zone with it. He made us swing the bat and we never could center the ball. You just have to tip your hat to him."
It was the second time this week that a Sox pitcher took a no-hitter into the seventh, as Josh Beckett had a no-no for 6 2/3 frames on Wednesday in Detroit.
Through six innings, Lester recorded 10 strikeouts, and he struck out the side in the fourth on 13 pitches. He threw just 61 pitches, 43 for strikes, through the first six frames, retiring the first 19 batters he faced.
"It was fun to watch," pitching coach John Farrell said. "He was obviously powerful, [and had] good command of all his stuff. And I think the one thing over the last few games that's really started to emerge is the use of his changeup as well as his four-seam fastball to arm side of the plate. I think that not only gives him a chance to spread the plate's width but to really begin to work back and forth, disrupting hitters' timing."
The outing was Lester's third career complete game and the first since his no-hitter. Having recorded a career-high 12 Ks in his last outing, on May 31 in Toronto, he has 23 strikeouts in his past two starts. He threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of the 31 batters he faced on Saturday night.
"It felt good," Lester said of his outing. "I was able to throw strikes with a lot of different pitches tonight and command both sides of the plate, which helps. [Catcher Jason Varitek] did a great job of honing that and making sure that I didn't get ahead of myself and try to think two, three pitches ahead, and just focus on that one pitch."
Lester appeared stronger in this game than he did in his no-no, according to Varitek.
"When he threw his no-hitter, he got some ground-ball outs, but he was battling through his stuff," Varitek said. "[On Saturday night], he was good from jump street.
"With Jonny, it's location. He was able to move the fastball around both sides. He's continuing to get better with the changeup. When he can do that, he can develop depth to both sides of the plate. That was key, because those guys were swinging from the get-go."
Although no outstanding defensive plays were required to maintain the potential perfect game on Saturday, as with Lester's 2008 gem, it never gets old for the defense to play behind a performance like that.
"No, not at all," third baseman Mike Lowell said. "His stuff was so good. I think he was getting such quick strike ones and strike twos. He was really, really electric. [The Rangers are] still a pretty good offensive team, you know. But he had great stuff. He had stuff to throw a no-hitter, absolutely. But you need to be a little luck, too. I thought he was outstanding."
Jason Bay joked that he was getting bored in left field.
"I really didn't get much, other than the hit in the gap," Bay said. "I really wasn't moving around a lot. It was actually kind of fun, because that means guys are -- like Beckett the other day, I didn't have a lot of action in left field then, either -- that means guys are doing their jobs.
"You get late in the game like that, and you're hoping. You're out there, and you're pulling for a guy, and you realize there's still three innings left against a very good-hitting team. So after we got up to about an 8-0 lead, I went over and told Jake [Ellsbury], 'Hey, you're diving for everything. I got your back, you got mine. Tell [right fielder] Rocco [Baldelli]. It's pretty obvious stuff. But that's the guy that we need him to be, the guy he can be. Granted, you don't expect that for nine innings every night out of a guy, but that was a blast to play behind."
The Sox scored their first run on Lowell's solo homer over the Green Monster in the second inning. The hit was initially ruled a double, but the umpires reviewed the play and ruled it a home run, the fourth time the Sox have been involved in a reviewed play this season and the first time it went their way.
David Ortiz also homered, connecting on his second of the season in the sixth.
Maureen Mullen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.