The July 31 trade that brought Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox to the A’s uprooted the 30-year-old left-hander from the only professional home he had known.
He made his big-league debut in Boston on a June evening in 2006. He threw a no-hitter at Fenway Park in 2008. He won two World Series rings there. Last week, after the trade, Lester took out a full-page ad in the Boston Globe thanking the Red Sox and their fans for their support during the parts of nine seasons he spent in Boston, including the words: “Boston will always be my home.”
So, naturally, the hardest part of Lester’s transition has been …
“Just finding my way around,” Lester said Friday. “Boston is – I don’t want to say easier, but you’re on streets, you’re not on highways. Everything is 30 minutes away here, if not more. And it’s all highways.”
If that seems minor, consider that Lester hasn’t even gotten properly lost yet navigating the Bay Area highways. “Not too bad, no,” he said.
The more consequential aspects of Lester’s new situation, meanwhile, he has seemed to handle just as smoothly.
Lesterwon his first two starts with the A’s, including a three-hit, complete-game shutout of the Minnesota Twins in his second Thursday night. He also has succeeded in winning over fans at the Coliseum, where a crowd of 22,108 on Thursday night was chanting his name during the late innings.
As for joining a new clubhouse, A’s manager Bob Melvin said: “It seems like he’s fit in pretty well to me.
“He’s probably not the most vocal guy in every clubhouse to begin with,” Melvin said. “But a game like that (Thursday) goes a long way toward really making you feel like you fit in with a team.
“Go out there and throw a nine-inning shutout – these days you don’t see that very often. So I’m sure each day he feels a little more part of the team. But I think (Thursday) night goes a long way toward bridging the gap some.”
With his résumé, which includes a career .640 winning percentage and a 1.97 postseason ERA that’s the lowest in Red Sox history of any pitcher not named Babe Ruth or Ernie Shore, Lester might expect to be accepted in any clubhouse. It was revealing, then, to hear his reaction to the chants of his name by many of the same fans who, two weeks ago, were cheering for Yoenis Cespedes.
“We all know what Cespedes did for this organization, and how well he was liked,” said Lester. “And the biggest thing for myself, just 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.”
So far, so good. Lester was already having perhaps the best season of his career before the trade; his current 2.44 ERA would be his lowest by nearly a full run if sustained all season, and his walk rate (two per nine innings) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.57-to-1) are both career bests. Since arriving in Oakland, he has continued a dominant stretch in which he is 6-0 with a 1.21 ERA in his last 10 starts.
“Just in a good place right now as far as game plan and executing, keeping the ball in the ballpark and – with the exception of last night walking two guys – just trying to keep as many base-runners off as I can,” Lester said. “If they earn it by getting hits, then they just beat you. I don’t want to beat myself.
“I think this year I’ve been in the strike zone more, so I’ve been able to get quicker outs as opposed to a lot of deep counts. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things, maturing, understanding my body, understanding what works and doesn’t work.”
After the game, Twins second baseman Brian Dozier was quoted by the St. Paul Pioneer Press as saying Lester’s cutter was working particularly well and that he seemed to be using it differently than in years past, throwing it slower but with more movement.
Lester said that has not been a conscious effort, though some pitch data bears it out. The analytics website FanGraphs says Lester has thrown his cutter 24.9 percent of the time in 2014, the second-highest rate of his career and up from 16.1 percent last season. It’s also averaging 87.5 miles per hour, down about 2 mph from last year.
Lester said he will vary the pitch at times depending on the hitter. “Just sometimes when I throw it backdoor to a righty, it’s a little slower, a little bigger (break),” he said. “Other times I throw it and it can be harder and straighter.”
Catcher Derek Norris, who has been behind the plate for Lester’s first two A’s starts, said Lester “shapes it the way he wants.”
“Sometimes it’s a cutter,” Norris said. “And sometimes it’s a slider.”
After Lester struck out Josh Willingham looking to end Thursday’s game, he and Norris exchanged a brief handshake between the mound and the plate, neither showing much emotion after Lester’s fourth career complete-game shutout.
“When he came over here, they said he’s all business on the mound,” Norris said. “But he has talked with me in the dugout and communicated with me very well. I have no opinion along the lines of him not communicating or joking around, because he’s done nothing but that since he’s been here. I think he just feels comfortable.”
The equalizer for Lester, as he pointed out Friday, is baseball. While his surroundings are different, his daily and between-starts routines are largely the same as when he pitched in Boston, and with a similar objective. Also making the move, though, is Lester’s family, and he said, “That’s the hard part, is just making sure they’re comfortable and know their way around, and are able to get to and from games and get things they need.”
Lester, a native of Tacoma, Wash., said he has found a place in the Bay Area, and his wife, Farrah, and two children, ages 4 years and 10 months, flew in to join him on Monday. The family makes its offseason home in Atlanta, Lester said, so they’re used to some moving. But during the season, Boston is all that his 4-year-old had known.
“For me, it’s a little easier,” Lester said. “I understand the professional side of it and the business side of it, and there’s not a whole lot I could do to stop or help (the trade). It’s up to the organization to make that decision.
“That’s kind of the bad side of being a baseball player, or just a professional athlete. One minute you think you have a home, and next minute you’re across the country. It’s tough, but you just learn to make the adjustments, and try to fit in, and make the best of it.”