Jon Lester’s wife gave birth to a son right after the lefthander’s start in Baltimore Sept. 28. If you’re a parent, you know how nerve-wracking the days leading up to and then after the birth can be. You are nervous, sleepless, excited, overwhelmed, emotional, proud.
It’s a huge time in Lester’s life. If you’re the average American worker, you get a little time off to relish the moment and help out with the baby.
But there’s not much time for that in baseball. Not at playoff time anyway.
Whether it was the joy of the birth of his son or some other motivation, Lester went back to work on a splendid Friday afternoon at Fenway Park and was brilliant as the Red Sox crushed the Rays, 12-2, in Game 1 of their American League Division Series.
Lester turned up the heat, literally.
After throwing 200-plus innings, his arm probably wasn’t feeling all that fresh. But he got the nod to pitch Game 1 and he came out of it throwing flames — 97 miles per hour — probably harder than he’s thrown all season.
Lester, a 15-game winner, was the Opening Day starter and the only Red Sox to reach 200 innings. He started the season as the ace and he still is the ace. He hit a rough patch for six or seven starts, but this is what Lester thrives on — proving he’s the best.
“I’ll tell you, that was pretty special,’’ said Sox manager John Farrell. “That was fun to watch.”
The Rays are white hot. They had lived on the brink and succeeded. They had won essentially three sudden death games to get here, so they were riding pretty high.
Lester swooped in on a partly sunny day with the mound in the sun and the batter’s box in the shadows and fanned their first three hitters. Lasers, really. And he immediately set the tone.
It may have been broken when Sean Rodriguez gave the Rays a 1-0 lead with a homer in the second inning and the deficit doubled on Ben Zobrist’s solo shot in the fourth, but Lester was unfazed.
Lester protested a pitch to umpire Chris Guccione he made during the Rodriguez at-bat, a fifth-pitch changeup that would have ended the inning.
“I thought it was a pretty good pitch,” Lester said. “I asked him, you know, did he have it down or did it – did it miss? Or where did he have it? And he said it was borderline down. And he had it down. So nothing you can do after that.”
Lester didn’t let the call get to him as he has in the past.
“I think what we’ve seen throughout the course of this year is Jon has ironed out his delivery to where when he’s got added adrenaline or emotion, he’s still able to channel it in the right way and not sacrifice location with his stuff,’’ said Farrell. “But that first inning was powerful and something we haven’t seen for a couple of years time. I know he was more than ready for today’s start.’’
Lester said he simply followed the game plan.
“Our game plan early was to set the tone,” Lester said. “Come right after the guys. It felt pretty good. And obviously the velocity up there showed.”
He threw 114 pitches, and according to Brooks Baseball, he tossed 62 fastballs, 11 curveballs, 4 sinkers, 12 changeups, and 25 cutters. He mixed it up well.
Lester, in the past, has been one of those overthinkers, who obsesses over every pitch. That was his problem last season. He had some time between his last start and this one.
“Once Baltimore was over, you start thinking about the next one,” Lester said. “You prepare and go on scouting reports and figuring out what our game plan is going to be. When that fifth day comes you toe it up and see what you can get done.’’
What did he get done? He beat Matt Moore.
He let his offense take advantage of one of the biggest fielding faux pas since Bill Buckner. Wil Myers, whom the Red Sox refused to trade Lester for last offseason, was ready to make a routine catch on a ball hit deep to right when he gave up on it thinking Desmond Jennings was going to catch it.
The game changed. The Red Sox piled on with five runs on six hits in that fourth inning and all Lester had to worry about was not giving any of it back. He continued to pitch with power and confidence. For 7⅔ innings there was no letup. The power in his pitches was still there. The cutter that worked early and that he lost the feel for in the middle, returned at the end.
He allowed only three hits, three walks, two runs. He struck out seven.
This wasn’t just quality, this was playoff quality.
“He’s gotten better,” acknowledged Rays manager Joe Maddon. “He had struggles in the recent past with command issues with his fastball, but that’s not the case right now. He came out there on 97. I was hoping that was pretty much adrenaline that would wear off and become the pedestrian version, but that never happened.”
No, there was nothing pedestrian about Lester.
He knew what was at stake because he’s been in big spots. He won the clinching game of the 2007 World Series after he beat cancer. You always remember the scene where Terry Francona held his face like a little baby and told him how proud he was of him.
“I think just being involved in more playoff games at a younger age, through those experiences you learn how to handle these situations,’’ said Lester. “And a perfect example was today. I knew two runs wasn’t going to beat us. As long as I kept them close enough, our guys were going to figure out Matt and we were able to do that. Get him out of the game early and get to their bullpen and put some runs up for us.’’
A few days after the birth of his little boy brought out his soft side, the Tampa Bay Rays brought out his hard side. It’s a week Lester won’t ever forget.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.