#TBT: Lester's no-hitter a lasting memory
Let's start with this piece of full disclosure. As I got out of my car in a parking lot across the street from Fenway Park during the mid-afternoon of May 19, 2008, there was little reason to be excited about the fact that Jon Lester was starting that night's game against the Kansas City Royals.
To that point in his career, Lester was the epitome of a prospect trying to find his way -- albeit one who had courageously battled back from cancer less than two years earlier.
Though Lester would always keep the Red Sox in games those first couple of years with his plus stuff and competitive fire, there were quite a few nights where he would labor through five or so innings in the 100-pitch range. He was still learning how to command his fastball, and Lester admitted as much.
On the walk to the media gate, I recall remarking to my good friend Rob Bradford -- then with the Boston Herald and now with WEEI.com -- something along the lines of, "This should be exciting. Lester is pitching tonight."
Nine innings and 130 pitches later, it was a statement you'd like to have back. But there probably weren't many people who thought they were going to see a no-hitter by Boston's 24-year-old southpaw as they walked into the gates of Fenway on May 19, 2008.
In 36 career starts entering that night, Lester had an impressive 13-4 record, but the more telling numbers at the time were a 4.48 ERA and a .273 opponents' batting average. He had allowed 207 hits over his first 201 1/3 innings.
But this would be the night everything changed for Lester -- and a night that showed why you shouldn't lose patience with a young and talented pitcher.
There is just no telling when it is all going to click. For Lester, this was the night he threw the 18th no-hitter in Red Sox history (nobody has thrown one since for Boston) and also the turning point in his career.
Over his past 256 starts beginning with that no-no, Lester is 118-77 with a 3.39 ERA, holding opponents to a .243 average. In 2013, he had a postseason for the ages, allowing just six runs in five postseason starts and leading the Red Sox to a World Series championship.
Lester is currently off to a brilliant start in his second season with the Cubs, and in his most recent start, he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Pirates.
No matter what happens for the rest of Lester's career, the no-hitter against the Royals will always be a signature night with a flood of memories for everyone who was at Fenway.
By the late innings, it was a thrill to be in my usual post in the front row of the press box. I wasn't so fortunate on Sept. 1, 2007. As Clay Buchholz did the unfathomable of throwing a no-hitter at Fenway in just his second Major League start, I happened to be off that night after returning home from a long road trip.
The thrill of a no-hitter never gets old to a fan, a player, a sportswriter or anyone who gets to witness one. Of the near 2,000 Red Sox games I've covered (including postseason) since 2002, I've seen just two no-hitters: Lester's, and Derek Lowe's on April 27, 2002, against Tampa Bay.
Looking back on that night, it's amazing how one little thing could change the course of history. To start the game, David DeJesus hit a fly ball to left that Manny Ramirez flagged down at the track. It was an ordinary catch, but if it was just a few degrees warmer (first-pitch temperature was 57 degrees) or if the 17-mph wind was blowing out to left field instead of right, the ball likely would have scraped the Green Monster.
In the third inning, Tony Pena hit a chopper that shortstop Julio Lugo -- an inconsistent fielder during his time with Boston -- played perfectly and threw to first for the out. If he hadn't handled the play cleanly, it likely would have been ruled a hit and not an error.
The fourth inning was when most people actually became aware that a no-hitter was in progress. The night had been fairly subtle up until then. But the energy in the ballpark changed when Jose Guillen hit a liner in the gap in right-center and Jacoby Ellsbury made a tremendous diving stab to end the inning.
From there, Lester did the rest. Walks to Billy Butler in the second and Esteban German to lead off the ninth were all that separated Lester from perfection.
Fenway Park was at a maximum decibel level in the ninth, and the place erupted when Alberto Callaspo struck out on high heat to end the game.
Lester embraced Jason Varitek, who was later joined by the Phillies' Carlos Ruiz as the only two catchers in history to serve as a batterymate in four no-hitters.
But the most indelible moment was the warm hug Lester shared with manager Terry Francona. Though Lester has a great relationship with his father, John, Francona had become his baseball father.
The relationship between the manager and pitcher went to another level when Lester was diagnosed with cancer. Francona always managed to say the right thing to Lester, either by phone call or text. And after the no-hitter, the emotion took over for both men. Francona shed some tears during his exchange with Lester.
One other memory of that night: After the game, Lester was asked by a reporter how he planned on celebrating his big night, and one might have assumed the answer would have involved a fancy nightclub or restaurant.
Lester said he was just going to go home and hang out with his then-fiancee and current wife, Farrah. That was so very Lester.
As for me, I never lacked anticipation for any Lester start thereafter.