As Jon Lester put the finishing touches on his no-hitter Monday night, I was sitting on a coach bus in Las Vegas with about 80 other people, on our way to a group dinner as part of the conference I was attending. As we stepped off the bus into the blistering desert heat, a colleague of mine held out his Blackberry with the mlb.com story on the screen. "A no-no!"
And then it was time for cocktail hour, to be followed by appetizers, to be followed by dinner, to be followed by dessert, to be follwed by a few highlights of the game through half-lidded eyes later on in my hotel room, still before midnight local time but with my body screaming to me about it being 2 am. Tuesday: lather, rinse, repeat, plus redeye flight back to Boston. The blogging has had to wait.
Since getting home today, I've seen most of the game on TiVo. It's been a mystery to me why Jon Lester gets bopped all around the ballpark one start, and tosses gems like the one on April 29 and Monday's no-hitter the next. I mean, I understand that he's a young pitcher who's still learning, but I haven't been able to tell specifically what it is that hasn't been working for him.
In Monday's game, it became clearer, because of what what WAS working - a quick pace, a good mix of pitches and a fidelity to the strike zone, good velocity, and most of all a vicious, filthy, virtually unhittable cut fastball. He also seemed to get stronger as the game went on, fanning three in the sixth.
When the last out finally happened, Lester's reaction was much different from that of the last Sox youngster wer got to see pitch a no-no, Clay Buchholz, who looked stunned and uncertain what to do in the wake of his own momentous last out, even as Jason Varitek heaved him up into his arms and the rest of their teammates charged toward the mound. Lester had both fists in the air a split second after the final strike call, and as Varitek grabbed him, Lester grinned and hugged his head. Buchholz had seemed bewildered; Jon Lester, despite his similarly young age, looked like a man who knew exactly why and how he should seize the moment.
Though the reasons for the depth of emotion here were obvious, Texas Gal made a point I very much agree with, in her brilliant and much more timely post about the game, about the cancer storyline having been slightly overdone in some circles. It's not to minimize what happened to him or the fortitude he showed in coming back from it so quickly--it's just that to Red Sox fans who have watched him grow up, Jon Lester isn't just "the kid who had cancer". He's been one of the top products of the Red Sox farm system for years, and people were talking in epic terms about his upside long before lymphoma. After a while, there's a fine line between acknowledging what he's been through and reducing him to it.
That said, you can't discount the effect of what Lester has overcome on our reaction to this moment. In the second or two betwen hearing a no-hitter had been thrown and finding out who'd thrown it, I was hoping it had been Jon Lester. Among Red Sox fans, his already storied personal history has bonded us to him unlike any other player to wear the uniform. As I wrote last July:
I've seen people battle with cancer, and I've even seen a few lose the battle. But somehow, though each case is different, watching those who survive can still shine a ray of hope onto a subject that can seem dark and impossible. Thus Jon Lester has become more than a pitcher, and more even than an individual cancer survivor. He is proof. He is hope. He is a symbol of survival.
He may not want that role, and he never asked for it. Being a pitcher in Boston is aggravating enough without the onus of greater societal pressures. And yet through it all he's handled it with grace and aplomb beyond his years. He's made an incredible comeback, and despite the trade rumors that mention his name, I want him to stay in Boston, where we can see him grow after seeing him stricken. He is our prospect, our pitcher, and our survivor now--what he's been through in the past year has bonded me to him as a fan in a way I haven't been with any of his teammates. I think he should belong to us.
And he does. During the trade talks about Santana last year, I heard some people say they could part with Lester, but not Jacoby. I even had the thought myself, once or twice. But in the end, it feels like it would've been impossible to let him go--by now, it feels like he has become a permanent part of this place.
As Tito put it, "He's a wonderful kid, not because he threw a no-hitter. He's a good kid because he's a good kid," and the same goes for his victory over cancer. But there's an undeniably different tone to Boston's collective happiness about this no-hitter from the last one.
More on the baseball that's happened in my absence after the jump.
If it hadn't been for the no-hitter, the star of that game would've been Jacoby Ellsbury. He captured sub-headline honors with a dazzling diving catch in the fourth inning that was the no-doubt defensive play of the game (eat your heart out, Coco), and he was a nightmare for the Royals on the base paths, with a triple and three stolen bases, two of which came back to back.
"Man, is he fun to watch run," Remy said as they replayed his triple. As Ellsbury rounded second, he seemed to engage some kind of internal afterburner, visibly shifting up a gear as the ball dropped in at the 420. That's the amazing thing about Ellsbury--you think he's already hauling maximum ass, and then he upshifts like that. Otherwise, his running seems quiet and effortless. He doesn't pump his arms or bare his teeth or even raise his knees very high. He just slices through the air with relentless, smooth forward momentum.
To quote Kristen, THANKS ANYWAY, MINNESOTA BUT WE'LL KEEP THESE GUYS IF THAT'S COOL.
And, of course, there was Manny, who reprised his Baltimore high five for the home fans after a leisurely catch in left. Who knows what goes on under that nest of dreadlocks, but I wonder if he's trying to blow off steam from the homer chase with those antics--the longer he goes without getting any closer to 500 at home, the more I also wonder if they should take those big red numbers off the Monster. I am dubious that the swapping out of numbered baseballs when he's at bat and that 498 staring down at him are really conducive to the measured Zen of his hitting approach.
Last night, as Sportscenter highlights on my redeye Jet Blue flight back to Boston showed me, Justin Masterson made a sharp start of his own, which has me thinking I may have to deploy file folders to keep track of all my pitching crushes by mid-summer, if things keep going the way they're going.
Then there was what happened between the Yankees and the Orioles, the highlights and lowlights of which I also caught. As that game was actually happening, I'd been at yet another schmoozy dinner in Vegas with a guy who happened to be a Yankees fan. "I have to say, 2004 was the worst," he said at one point. "It hurt a lot."
"Keep going," I grinned at him. "Keep it coming. It's music to my ears."
That's how it felt watching the Orioles tee off on Mike Mussina, and then seeing the contest devolve into a completely pointless beanball war and a near-brawl, to say nothing of Show Pony back to his old tricks with a 2-run homer once the game was safely out of reach.
Keep it coming. All of it.