The conga line to congratulate Jon Lester on his no-hitter had formed, and one of his Boston Red Sox teammates, caught up in the moment and oblivious to the long-range microphone on the TV broadcast, said what everyone else was thinking.
“Un-(bleeping)-believable,” the teammate said. “Unbelievable.”
As much as that summed up the night on which Lester turned the Kansas City Royals’ bats to swizzle sticks in a 7-0 victory, it applies more appropriately to the past year of his life, where the no-hitter stands out as merely his third-greatest accomplishment.
Which is rather remarkable, because the 24-year-old Lester was great Monday night, his final pitch dashing across the plate at 96 mph, the hardest he threw all evening, Alberto Callaspo nothing more than the patsy to swing and miss. It set off a celebration reminiscent of last October, when the left-handed Lester started Game 4 of the World Series and locked down the Colorado Rockies for five shutout innings, earning the championship-clinching win in his first postseason start.
And still, not even that registers as Lester’s coup de grace. He beat cancer last year. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, diagnosed in late 2006 because of a sore back that he thought stemmed from a car crash. Lester fought it into remission and worked himself back into baseball shape. On this day last year, he pitched at Triple-A Pawtucket and threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings. In July, he returned to Boston. By the end of October, he was getting fitted for a World Series ring.
His story is one of perseverance and triumph and everything else that deserves a sappy soundtrack. Most of all, it’s of strength, of Lester building up enough stamina to throw 130 pitches, as many as any starter has thrown since the 2006 season, and saving his best for last.
There were some dandy ones in between, his fastball zipping and his breaking ball dipping. Lester mixed in a few cut fastballs that bore in on right-handed hitters and slithered away from lefties, and the Royals, the American League’s most flaccid lineup, struck out nine times and mustered barely a hard-hit ball.
Oh, Jose Guillen, the AL’s reigning player of the week, looped a line drive into center field that Jacoby Ellsbury dove to snag. And there was a semi-hard-hit ball to first baseman Kevin Youkilis. Otherwise, the Royals’ biggest threat came from two walks, and with how Lester threw, those runners weren’t going anywhere.
“To watch him do that beyond tonight was beyond words,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.
Enough that Lester couldn’t quite put into perspective the breadth of his evening. He said the boilerplate no-hitter response: that he didn’t think about it until this ninth, and that it was one of the best moments of his life, and that he had never heard Fenway Park so loud when he was pitching.
“I threw a couple in high school,” Lester said following the game at a news conference, “but (this) is a little different.”
Just a little, yeah. After Lester got lost in hugs from each his teammates, catcher Jason Varitek handed him the ball from the final out, which is like being knighted, with Varitek having caught four no-no’s. And then came Francona, who held his face like he was the proudest dad in the world. And finally Fenway, in its elderly glory, saw its denizens stand and serenade their hero for the night.
It was the 18th no-hitter in Red Sox history, and while that sounds like a lot, remember: Curt Schilling has thrown more than 3,000 innings without a no-hitter, and Josh Beckett has won a World Series MVP and not thrown a no-hitter, and Daisuke Matsuzaka was the most dominant pitcher Japan has seen in generations and never threw a no-hitter.
The last person to do so was Lester’s teammate, Clay Buchholz, who spun one in his second major league start last September. As special as that was, and as good a harbinger for the Red Sox, Lester’s might mean more not because of the accomplishment itself but the road traveled to achieve it.
There were signs. On April 29, Lester threw eight one-hit innings against Toronto, Lyle Overbay’s single the lone blemish. And yet the difference between one hit and no hits is a greater divide than it seems. Just ask any pitcher who walks to the mound and knows a bloop, a broken bat, a high chopper – anything – stands between immortality and just another good outing.
Lester earned all of his outs, the toughest ones especially, and it was almost as though he knew when he would throw his last pitch. Lester licked his lips, took a deep breath, reared back and slung the ball, Goliath, on this night, getting one up on David.
Yep. And that made it all the better.