OAKLAND -- After his first start with the A’s, in which he was taken out with two outs in the seventh inning, left-hander Jon Lester said he prefers to shake a manager’s hand in the dugout between innings, as that means he has succeeded in getting his team off the field before the end of his outing.
In his second start Thursday night, Lester didn’t have to shake hands with manager Bob Melvin until the A’s 3-0 win was already finished. Lester hurled a complete-game, three-hit shutout -- his fourth career complete-game shutout -- as the A’s won the first game of a four-game series against the Minnesota Twins.
Lester was perfect through five innings and allowed only three singles and two walks while striking out eight. He threw 122 pitches, tying his season high. Lester was at 105 pitches after eight innings, but Melvin said there wasn’t much question about sending Lester back out for the ninth.
"I checked on him," Melvin said. "He wanted it. So that was all I needed to hear."
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Still, Melvin said Lester was on a 120-pitch limit, which he reached mid-at-bat facing his last hitter, Josh Willingham. Lester just missed the strike zone with pitch 121, and then got Willingham looking on a cutter over the outside corner on pitch 122.
"That was his last hitter," said Melvin, who had Sean Doolittle throwing in the bullpen. "Heart was beating over there. I was glad he did it.
"I probably don’t let anybody else get to that number. But he’s been there before. And that’s why we got him here."
When the A’s acquired Lester, general manager Billy Beane and Melvin both talked of his being a "true No. 1" starter. Thursday provided a glimpse of one aspect of that. All the A’s starters are capable of excellent performances, but Lester gives Melvin a certain freedom to just turn the game over to his starter and let him go.
As Melvin said several times, no other A’s starter gets the leeway of a 120-pitch limit. Lester, though, has gone over 100 pitches in all but two of his starts this season, because he’s a big, strong pitcher who’s capable of handling the workload and a veteran who has proven that fact.
"I feel fine," Lester said afterward. "Once you’re in the start, it’s kind of -- you feel normal. It’s just usually the days after where you feel your soreness. Once you get in that start and get your adrenaline, it’s usually fine throughout."
It was clear from the outset Thursday the Twins were going to have a tough time hitting Lester. He painted corners, struck out four of the first nine hitters he faced, and allowed three balls out of the infield through the first five innings, in which he faced the minimum 15 batters. Melvin said when a pitcher is perfect, the five-inning mark is usually where a dugout starts to "get a little quiet and keep their thoughts to themselves."
"If there was ever a time when a guy goes five innings perfect like that, you just feel like he’s going to get it -- especially the way he was throwing the ball," said Stephen Vogt, who was watching from first base. "There was no doubt in my mind he could’ve gone nine innings perfect."
Kurt Suzuki broke up the perfect game with a leadoff single in the sixth. Chris Colabello followed with a single, and Brian Dozier put a scare into the crowd of 22,108 when he hit a two-out drive to left that hooked foul by what looked like mere inches, landing just to the left of the pole. Dozier took his time jogging back to the plate, looking toward the dugout as if imploring the Twins to challenge the ruling, but manager Ron Gardenhire stayed put.
"It’s one thing if you have a view," Melvin said when asked for his view of the play. "It’s another if your eyes are closed.
"I did actually see it and I couldn’t really tell. They were all saying it went just foul, thank goodness."
Lester walked Dozier to load the bases, but Trevor Plouffe bounced out to third baseman Josh Donaldson to end the inning. Lester allowed just one more hit, a two-out single by Oswaldo Arcia in the seventh, and a leadoff walk to Colabello in the eighth, which Lester promptly erased by getting Eduardo Escobar to ground into a double play.
"I was able to get strike one -- that’s huge," Lester said. "Especially against a team like that, that can be aggressive at times. You can expand the second, third time through and get some first-pitch outs, weak outs. We were able to do that."
In the later innings, A’s fans at the Coliseum began breaking into chants of "Les-ter!" It hasn’t taken them long to warm to the left-hander, who is now 6-0 with a 1.21 ERA over his last 10 starts.
"The biggest thing is just to feel welcomed," said Lester, who memorably handled the irony of making his A’s debut on Yoenis Cespedes T-shirt day with appropriate humor.
"We all know what Cespedes did for this organization and how well he was liked and everything, and the biggest thing for myself coming over here -- you don’t want to screw that up. You want to make the trade look like it had a purpose and it was good, and you don’t want to come in halfway through the year after these guys have been battling their butts off to be in first place and screw that up."
So far, he’s off to a good start.
* Vogt provided all the offense Lester needed with one swing in the third inning, hitting his sixth home run of the season, a two-run shot to right off Twins starter Yohan Pino. It snapped an 0-for-23 streak for Vogt, the second-longest of his career, behind only the 0-for-32 with which he started his career.
"It felt pretty good to have good at-bats tonight," Vogt said. "I felt like regardless of the results, I felt more like myself tonight than I have in the past. But it was nice to get the hit and take a little pressure off."
Vogt said before the game he felt like he’d been pressing in the wake of the Cespedes trade, which thrust him into a new role. The A’s said they were going to count on Vogt and Jonny Gomes platooning to replace Cespedes’ production in the lineup, and while Vogt said he didn’t think that was the primary reason for his slump, he admitted there’s naturally a tendency after losing Cespedes to try to do more to offset his absence.
"Over the last week or so I’ve gotten away from who I am as a hitter, trying to do what I did tonight, trying to make something happen, trying to get a big hit, forgetting that I’m not a home run hitter," Vogt said. "I wait for a good pitch and hit it hard, and if it goes out, it goes out.
"I’ve been trying to create more than what I needed to create. But I felt great tonight, felt pretty good yesterday as well -- just make sure I’m seeing the ball and begin selective, swinging at good pitches, and I felt like I did that tonight."
Vogt wasn’t the only hitter to snap out of a bad funk. Brandon Moss and John Jaso both ran their hitless streaks to 18 at-bats before breaking them Thursday night, Jaso on a third-inning single and Moss on a fourth-inning double. Moss then scored the A’s third run when Derek Norris followed with a double.
"That’s big," Melvin said. "Nobody wants to go through that, especially quality hitters like those guys … It’s a relief. It starts to wear on you a little bit, and all three of those guys are quality hitters."
Melvin wryly noted that Vogt’s average "dropped all the way to .315" during his 0-for-23 stretch. It still at .316, but with a serious weight lifted from his shoulders.
* The home run was Vogt’s biggest contribution to the game, but possibly not his best performance of the day. If you haven’t already seen it, Vogt and Gomes were guests on MLB Network’s "Intentional Talk" before the game Thursday afternoon, and Vogt -- a talented mimic -- did his impression of a basketball referee, complete with striped shirt, square-rimmed glasses and whistle. Check it out here.
* Melvin reached a milestone with the A’s win, as it was the 800th of his managerial career. On their way out of the clubhouse, players stopped and signed the lineup card for the manager, who naturally downplayed the significance of the moment.
"It’s a nice round number," Melvin said. "It’s kind of nice that we got a shutout on it. But it’s not really a personal accomplishment for me. I got 800 wins because you have good players giving you a lot of wins, and certainly here it’s been terrific. But just a round number."
Still looks good on a resume.
* One odd moment in the game -- after Alberto Callaspo walked in the first inning, it was announced that Sam Fuld was entering the game as a pinch runner. Fuld did run out to replace Callaspo on the bag -- but only momentarily, as Callaspo, who had gotten back to the A’s dugout, jogged back out to first and sent Fuld back to the dugout.
Melvin, who had just inserted Jonny Gomes as a pinch hitter for Vogt, explained that he told Fuld to pinch run for Gomes if Gomes got on base. But as he sent Gomes up to hit, Fuld darted out of the dugout. Melvin was able to tell home plate umpire Brian Gorman in time that Fuld was not actually entering the game.
"He was just a tad eager," Melvin said of Fuld. "He wanted to play. He’s probably got a games clause in his contract."
* The A’s become the first team in the majors to reach 90 wins this season, and picked up a game on the Angels in the West, as their division rivals were shut out by the Dodgers, 7-0, in Los Angeles. It was the Angels’ third consecutive loss, and the A’s lead in the West is now back to three games.
Game two of this series features left-hander Scott Kazmir (12-4, 2.53) against Minnesota right-hander Kyle Gibson (10-8, 3.93). First pitch at 7:05 p.m.