In what has been a painfully slow month-plus amidst the current lockout, any bit of topical baseball news is welcome, and Wednesday a morsel of news came down the pike as veteran left-handed pitcher Jon Lester announced his retirement, five days following his 38th birthday.
With his retirement, there will certainly be some Hall of Fame rumblings five years from now, and indeed he put up a solid career: 200 wins, a 3.66 ERA, 2,488 strikeouts, and 44.2 WAR (nearly all of it after beating cancer). Additionally, he was lights-out in October, winning nine more games and notching a 2.51 ERA over 154.0 postseason innings. He played for three World Series champions as well—the 2007 and 2013 Boston Red Sox (winning the clincher in 2007) and the 2016 Chicago Cubs.
In his illustrious career, Jon Lester never was a Kansas City Royal, nor did he even pitch in the AL Central, but two notable moments of his career heavily involved the Royals—one positive for him and one not so much.
In 2006, Lester debuted with the Red Sox, making 15 starts before being diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma in early September. Fortunately, he was able to quickly complete chemotherapy and returned midway through the 2007 season.
By the time 2008 rolled around, Lester still was known more as a feel-good story, but that changed on May 19.
Starting at Fenway Park that night, Lester locked horns with Luke Hochevar, who promptly allowed five runs in the third inning and seven for the game. On the other side, Lester was dialed in.
Miguel Olivo drew a second-inning walk and Esteban German earned a free pass leading off the ninth inning, but that was it. On his 130th pitch of the evening, he blew a 96-MPH fastball past Alberto Callaspo (isn’t this blast from the past fun?!) to secure a no-hitter.
As a then-13-year-old Royals fan, I was not at all amused, as I recall watching the entire game, but turning off the TV literally the second Callaspo swung through the final pitch. For most Royals fans, that is the only no-hitter we know at the expense of the Royals, as the only other one against Kansas City was tossed by Nolan Ryan in 1973.
For that matter, the last Royals no-no was tossed by Bret Saberhagen in 1991, so for any Royals fan under the age of thirty, Lester’s masterpiece is the only one in our lifetimes to have taken place on a Royals broadcast.
For his part, the no-no served as a jumping off point for Lester’s breakout 2008 season. He posted a 2.93 ERA over the rest of the campaign, going 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA and beginning a 12-year streak where he made at least 30 starts each season.
Tucked right in the middle of that streak was 2014, one of Lester’s finest seasons (a 2.46 ERA, and a career-best 219.2 innings and 220 strikeouts). That all went for naught, though, thanks to a pivotal game that changed the trajectory of not Lester, but instead the entire Royals franchise…
The Wild Card Game
At the 2014 MLB trade deadline, the Oakland A’s were all-in, and their biggest move was swinging a deal to acquire Lester from the Red Sox. After winning the World Series for Boston in 2013, he had a chance to win another one on the other side of the country.
First, though, Oakland had to take care of business on the road in the American League Wild Card Game against Kansas City. Lester was the obvious choice to start the game for Oakland, being their top starter and a proven postseason stalwart.
Playing their first postseason game in nearly three decades, the Royals did know, though, something that baseball as a whole didn’t, or at least didn’t know publicly: Jon Lester could not throw to first base. The Royals tried to exploit this in the first inning, first with a Nori Aoki steal, which was successful and led to him scoring the first Royals run.
Then, they tried a double steal with Billy Butler on first and Eric Hosmer on third and two outs. As you might expect, it did not work. The reasoning why? The Royals believed Lester was more likely to throw away a potential pickoff than Alex Gordon was to get a hit with an 0-2 count.
Of course, that didn’t matter a whole lot as Lester cruised and Oakland built a 7-3 lead heading to the bottom of the eighth inning. Lester was still out there, but his inability to hold runners helped open the door for the Royals. Alcides Escobar singled and stole second. Without his steal, Aoki’s subsequent ground ball to second may have been a double play. Instead, Escobar scored on a Lorenzo Cain single one batter later.
Cain stole second as well and later scored himself. Lester was pulled after allowed three of the first four to reach in the eighth. While it’s fair to debate whether Bob Melvin gave him too much leash, either way, all three of those runners scored. As a result, Lester was on the hook for six runs (all earned), the most he allowed in his 26 career postseason outings.
Additionally, Lester’s struggles with baserunners may have had an unintended residual effect that lingered even after he departed. Geovany Soto started at catcher for Oakland and was an excellent defensive catcher—especially throwing (43% of runners caught stealing in 2014). On the ill-fated double steal, it is believed that Soto injured his left thumb applying the tag to Hosmer.
Whatever the case was, Soto made it through his one at-bat of the game and one more inning behind the plate before he couldn’t do it anymore. Derek Norris, who threw out just 17% of base stealers in 2014, would have to finish the game behind the plate.
If Soto was behind the plate instead of Norris, maybe the Royals don’t swipe one or two of their badly-needed stolen bases in the eighth (four in total). It’s quite possible that Jarrod Dyson doesn’t notch his critical steal of third in the ninth inning before scoring the tying run on a sacrifice fly.
As bizarre as it is in hindsight, two games involving Jon Lester against the Royals served as clear turning points for the pitcher and franchise.
The no-hitter served as the jumping off point in Lester becoming a legitimate ace-level pitcher. Does Lester still win 200 games and three rings if he allows two hits over seven innings instead of no hits over nine? Probably so.
On the other hand, do the Royals win the 2014 AL Pennant and 2015 World Series if Lester could hold baserunners? If Lester could hold runners (and Soto stays in the game), there’s a decent chance at least one of those runs doesn’t score and the 2014 Royals go one-and-done in the playoffs because the Royals can’t climb back from down four in the eighth.
Without the 2014 World Series run, maybe 2015 goes markedly different for the Royals.
It’s impossible to know for sure, but we do know this: the Royals gave Lester one of his career’s signature moments and Lester returned the favor against the Royals six years later. I think Royals fans will gladly accept the trade-off.
Regardless, happy retirement Jon!…and I’m sorry if I ruined your day.
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