Jon Lester threw a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals in 2008. But he was admittedly far more of a thrower than a pitcher back then.
“The best way to put it is ‘effectively wild,’ ” the Red Sox lefthander said. “Trying to go down and away, we’d go up and in and they’d hit a fly ball somewhere. Not really understanding what was going on. Just throwing the ball.”
What transpired at Fenway Park on Friday night was something else entirely, even if it wasn’t quite as historic.
Lester was a pitch away from perfection against the Toronto Blue Jays in a 5-0 victory. His only blemish was a double in the sixth inning by Maicer Izturis.
The Jays sent 28 batters to the plate and 27 went back to the dugout. Lester threw six of his 118 pitches out of the stretch. He was a craftsman far removed from the 24-year-old who no-hit Kansas City.
Lester’s maturity was evident after the game, too. He laughed when asked whether he was disappointed about losing the perfect game and no-hitter.
“All that stuff, the stars got to be perfectly aligned for you,” Lester said. “It’s got to happen . . . You can’t pitch to that. You’ve got to pitch your game.”
His game Friday was to induce contact and use the aggressiveness of the underachieving Blue Jays against them. Lester struck out only five but got 12 outs on ground balls.
Toronto batters saw three pitches or fewer in 12 plate appearances. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said it was a little nerve-racking, knowing the Jays were willing to swing at almost anything he called.
But Lester located pitch after pitch, getting the Jays to chase balls they couldn’t do much with. He had his best changeup, a heavy sinker, and a cutter he was able to throw for strikes when needed.
“They’re an aggressive team anyway. I didn’t expect anything less from them,” Lester said. “It surprised me a little bit just how aggressive they were first pitch, especially to lead off an inning. It kind of played into us.”
Lester (5-0) diced up the Blue Jays for five innings, needing only 58 pitches to record 15 outs.
“My job was easy, to be honest with you. Just sit there, put a finger down, and he’d throw it right where I put my glove. It was fun,” Saltalamacchia said.
With two outs in the sixth inning, Izturis hit a first-pitch changeup down the line in left. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who had handled seven balls to that point, had no play.
After getting loud applause from the crowd of 33,606, Lester had a new challenge on his hands. There was a runner on second and he had only a 1-0 lead.
With Rajai Davis unable to hit because of a strained oblique muscle, Toronto manager John Gibbons had Adam Lind pinch hit. The lefthanded hitter was 3 for 27 against Lester in his career with 10 strikeouts.
“Really have to focus down,” Lester said. “Don’t allow Lind to lift the ball, especially to left field. If we beat him and it’s up just a little bit, with that Monster out there it can change a lot of games.”
Lester missed three times. But he came back to strike Lind out with a sinking fastball.
“The first three pitches weren’t competitive at all. Really trying to get my bearings back into the stretch,” Lester said. “The next three were about as well as I can throw a ball.”
Lester finished the game retiring 10 in a row, ending the night by striking out Lind again.
Lester (5-0) has three shutouts in his career and 10 complete games. His was the first one-hit shutout for the Sox since Josh Beckett beat the Rays on June 15, 2011.
“Jon tonight was never really in any stressful situations,” manager John Farrell said. “He was in a good rhythm all night right from the start.”
The Sox had lost three straight and six of their previous seven. Clay Buchholz has been the best pitcher on the staff this season but it was Lester who shoved the team back in the right direction when it was most needed.
“It does start with the guy on the mound,” Farrell said.
Toronto unearthed Ramon Ortiz to make the start, his first in the majors since 2011. Ortiz, who turns 40 in two weeks, was remarkably good as he held the Red Sox to one run on four hits over five innings. He walked five and struck out one.
The Sox took a 1-0 lead in the second inning. Daniel Nava drew a walk, took third on a single by Saltalamacchia, and scored when Middlebrooks grounded into a fielder’s choice.
The Sox were otherwise frustrated by Ortiz, who left at least one runner stranded in scoring position in all five innings, three of them at third base.
The Sox kept prodding in the seventh inning and broke through against Brett Cecil.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino had singles before moving up on a wild pitch. Dustin Pedroia then capped a seven-pitch at-bat with a single to right field.
The Sox were 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position before Pedroia’s hit.
With two outs, Nava belted a two-run double high off the wall in center. He has 23 RBIs in 30 games. Saltalamacchia followed with a double to the base of the short wall in right field and the Sox had a 5-0 lead.
“You throw that stuff together, it allows us to have an opportunity and eventually if you have enough of them, you’re going to get it,” Nava said. “I think we’re a team that believes we can get it.”