Let’s throw in a no-hitter for good measure.
There are times these days when one wonders what New England sports fans did to deserve this glut of riches.
On Sunday, Paul Pierce and LeBron James engaged in one of the great Game 7 duels in NBA history and tonight the Celtics play Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Our thrice-crowned local football team is coming off an 18-1 Super Bowl season, and the Red Sox are defending world champions.
And last night Jon Lester threw a no-hitter, blanking the Kansas City Royals, 7-0, at Fenway Park - just to remind us that we are in the middle of baseball season.
Jon Lester is 24 years old. He’s a cancer survivor. He’s the winner of the clinching game of the 2007 World Series. Now he’s the first Sox lefty to throw a no-hitter since Mel Parnell turned the trick against the Chicago White Sox in 1956. It was the first complete game of Lester’s major league career.
”He’s a wonderful kid, not just because he threw the no-hitter,” said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. “To watch him do that tonight was beyond words. What a story. You feel like a proud parent.”
Lester’s parents are from Puyallup, Wash., but when he was stricken with lymphoma at the end of the 2006 season, Francona became a father figure to the young lefty. When Lester fanned Alberto Callaspo to finish the no-hitter, Francona bolted out of the Sox dugout to embrace the stoic southpaw.
“It’s something I’ll remember for a long time,” said Lester. “He has been like a second dad to me. He cares a lot about his players. It’s not just about what you can do on the field.”
Lester’s gem came on a chilly Fenway weeknight and was saved by a sensational fourth-inning catch by rookie center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Super-skilled Royals outfielder Jose Guillen looped a two-out shot into shallow center that looked like a base hit until the fleet Ellsbury raced forward, dived, and got his glove down to make the catch.
“I was just thinking, `Go get it,”’ said Ellsbury. “J.D. [Drew, the right fielder] was backing me up so in that situation I’m just thinking, `Go get it.’ I’m really happy I made that catch.”
Lester dominated the Royals from the start. He threw first strikes to 18 of 28 hitters. He fanned eight batters overall, including seven over the last five innings. He walked only two. He threw a career-high 130 pitches.
“Right now if feels like I pitched and we won the game,” said the young lefty. “It’s kind of like the World Series. I guess it’s one of those things you get to enjoy later. It’s something I’ll remember forever.
“I had a lot of excitement going into the ninth inning. The fans were great, on their feet and screaming. It’s one of the loudest times I’ve heard at Fenway.”
In the dramatic ninth, Lester walked Esteban German on five pitches, then got Tony Pena on a grounder to third. He fanned David DeJesus on a 2-2 pitch, then punched out Callaspo on a 1-2 pitch to finish the job.
“You don’t feel tired in that situation,” said Lester. “You’ve got so much adrenaline going. I think the adrenaline helps, especially later in the game.”
No-hitters are rare and random. Roger Clemens did not pitch a no-hitter in a career that spanned 1984-2007. The New York Mets have been existence since 1962, but no Met pitcher has tossed a no-hitter.
Lester’s no-hitter was the 18th in Sox history, coming on the heels of a gem thrown by rookie Clay Buchholz last Sept. 1 (Buchholz’s second big league start). Lester’s masterpiece was the fourth no-hitter caught by Sox backstop Jason Varitek, tying a major league record.
“You see somebody that’s becoming a strong man,” said Varitek. “You see how he’s grown in strength from having to fight that illness. It’s a testament for people out there who have to go through something like that. It’s his time, his moment, I’m just fortunate to be a part of it, but it’s his moment.”
Lester was not in the Red Sox rotation at this time last year. He was still recovering from his cancer treatments and the Sox were careful not to bring him back to the big leagues too soon. Lester was typically impatient while he worked his way back, but it appears he has returned to full strength. And then some.
“It was a long road back,” said Lester. “When I did get back, I wanted to be on a certain level. I’m just glad I’m here right now.”
He was asked which was bigger - winning the final game of the World Series or pitching a no-hitter.
“I can’t tell you which one means more to me,” he answered. “They’re both up there. They both mean a heck of a lot to me. It’s something I’ll cherish for a long time.”
All of New England will cherish the moment. It’s storybook stuff. Seven months after winning the final game of the World Series, the 24-year-old kid who survived cancer pitches a no-hitter at Fenway Park.
In New England sports in 2008, the hits just keep on coming. Even where there are no hits.