Jon Lester lives in Georgia with his family now and has adopted a Southern accent. But he grew up in Tacoma, Wash., about 35 miles south of Seattle, rooting for Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and the Mariners.
Lester was a tall lefthander who threw hard, so naturally he watched Johnson every chance he had.
By the time Lester was old enough to understand baseball, Johnson had gained control of his considerable talent and was fashioning a career that will lead to the Hall of Fame.
“That was my guy,” Lester said. “Who else?”
On Saturday, Lester pitched the kind of game Johnson would have been proud to call his own. He threw eight shutout innings for the Red Sox in a 6-3 victory against the Oakland Athletics, allowing one hit and striking out 15.
“I faced Randy and what I saw today reminded me of that,” teammate Jonny Gomes said. “I’m glad to wear the same uniform as our lefty.”
Not since Johnson in 1997 had a lefthanded pitcher thrown at least eight shutout innings with 15 strikeouts and one hit. The strikeouts were a career high for Lester and the most for a Red Sox pitcher since Pedro Martinez struck out 16 Devil Rays on April 8, 2001.
Lester joined Martinez (10 times), Roger Clemens (six times), and Bill Monbouquette (once) as the only Red Sox pitchers to strike out 15 in a nine-inning game.
“Any time you mention [Martinez and Clemens] it’s pretty special,” Lester said. “Obviously not one of those deals you really focus on or worry about. It just kind of happened today. It’s an honor to be with those guys’ names. Hopefully get another day like this someday.”
David Ross, who works well with Lester, said it was a fun day to be a catcher.
“He was phenomenal,” Ross said. “When you mix his stuff with my brains, it’s awesome.”
Ross started laughing, but there was something to what he said. Lester’s ability to throw four pitches for strikes gave Ross a full toolbox to use.
Lester got one strikeout with a curveball, two with sinkers, and four with fastballs. But it was his cutter that defined the outing.
Of the eight called third strikes, six were on cutters either inside or away. Once Lester established he could throw that pitch on the edges of the plate for a strike, umpire D.J. Reyburn kept calling it and the Athletics never adjusted.
“When you have that, there’s no reason to go away from it,” Lester said. “You’re going to keep trying it until he proves that he’s no longer going to call it or they start going out there and hitting it.”
The Athletics, one of the best offensive teams in the majors, never came close to scoring against Lester. Craig Gentry had a soft single to right field in the third inning and Derek Norris walked twice to lead off innings. Beyond that they were locked down.
“[Lester] had great command of all his pitches, he executed and didn’t make any mistakes today,” said Oakland shortstop Jed Lowrie, a former Sox teammate of Lester. “Much as I don’t like to say it, that was pretty impressive.”
Said Sox manager Jon Farrell: “The combination of power and command was impressive. He was locked in seemingly from the first pitch of the game . . . Seemingly any pitch that David called, Jon was able to execute.”
Lester was at 119 pitches after eight innings and Farrell was not going to physically tax his ace with a six-run lead. In the ninth, Oakland had three hits and the Red Sox two errors before Koji Uehara got the final out with the tying run at the plate.
“I knew we had it the whole way,” said Lester, grinning a bit.
Even an offense that scored only 12 runs in Lester’s first six starts was there on Saturday. It started right away against Oakland starter Tommy Milone (0-3).
Dustin Pedroia led off the first inning with a walk before Xander Bogaerts singled and David Ortiz walked to load the bases. Mike Napoli struck out, seeing six pitches.
Gomes swung at a first-pitch curveball and drove it into the Monster seats for his third home run of the season and fifth career grand slam. It was the third slam in seven games for the Red Sox.
Ortiz started the third inning with a home run to right field that cleared the Oakland bullpen.
It was the sixth of the season for Ortiz and gave him 379 as a member of the Red Sox, matching Dwight Evans for fourth place in team history. Ortiz need three more to catch Jim Rice for third place.
Ortiz has 437 career home runs, one short of tying Andre Dawson and Jason Giambi for 40th place all-time.
The home run came on an 0-and-2 pitch, the first time Ortiz has done that since 2004.
Ross made the score 6-0 with a home run in the fourth inning. Lester (3-4) was fully in control by then.
It was the kind of performance that could convince the Red Sox to raise the contract extension offer Lester rejected in spring training. Lester, 30, has a 2.59 earned run average and has struck out 58 over 48⅔ innings.
“The needle is still pointing up for him,” Gomes said. “He’s in that class of the best starters in the game. I think we all knew that before and he showed it again today.”Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.