The Athletics didn't beef up their pitching just because they were worried about facing the Tigers in the playoffs for the third year in a row. They weren't arrogant enough to overlook the Angels and just assume they would roll into the postseason.
Baseball doesn't work like that. It's six months of long nights and late-inning drama, and you need every advantage you can find if you're in pursuit of the playoffs, especially when you're in a division with such guys as Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver and manager Mike Scioscia.
Even when the A's were 51-30 in late June, Beane and his top assistants, David Forst and Farhan Zaidi, worried that the rotation they pieced together after losing Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin would wear down in August and September. They were thinking about that when they acquired Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Lester, not merely writing playoff rotations on cocktail napkins.
Lester, making his eighth start for Oakland, came to the rescue against the White Sox in an 11-2 victory on Tuesday night, allowing two runs on seven hits in eight innings and striking out eight.
"When a guy like that takes the mound, no matter what you have going on, wins and losses, you feel good about your chance to win the game," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "That was the case today."
Lester was almost as dominant as he had been for the Red Sox back at U.S. Cellular Field in April, when he and Chris Sale both took no-hitters into the sixth inning. David Ross said a 5-year-old could have caught Lester that night, and he was almost as sharp for six innings this time.
But forget style points. This was a game Lester needed to win to relieve some of the tension that built when the Athletics lost nine of 11 games, with their normally excellent bullpen blowing ninth-inning leads in losses the previous two days.
Oakland, which had seen its American League Wild Card cushion essentially evaporate, will send Samardzija and Scott Kazmir to the mound the next two days. The hope is that the club will be able to follow Lester's lead in dicing up the White Sox, as this is a series that provides the A's a chance to get headed in the right direction.
"Obviously, everybody's goal to start the season is to win the division and go to the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, best record, all that," Lester said. "But when it comes down to it, you just need to get [into the playoffs]. We're going to play the best baseball we can until the end, then we'll see where we're at. The biggest thing is to just find a way to get in, because once you're in, anything can happen."
This year, Lester has been to White Sox run production what the boll weevil is to cotton crops. In three starts, he's allowed four runs in 23 innings, with 29 strikeouts and only two walks.
As the 30-year-old lefty heads toward free agency, Lester is 14-10 with a 2.52 ERA. He has 199 strikeouts in 199 2/3 innings.
Melvin said that Lester's fastball was sitting at 93 on Tuesday, his cutter at 90. He said it was "the most life" he had seen on Lester's pitches since he was acquired from the Red Sox but Lester felt there were other keys to his success. He was able to consistently pitch inside to right-handed hitters, including Jose Abreu (an infield single and walk in four plate appearances), and he had a good curveball from the start.
Lester is hardly the only reason Melvin went to his hotel happy. Josh Donaldson, the No. 3 hitter who had 20 homers and 65 RBIs at the All-Star break, bounced back from his four-strikeout game on Monday to set a career high with five hits, including a double over the head of center fielder Adam Eaton, and record four RBIs.
The only downside of the night came when Craig Gentry barreled into second baseman Carlos Sanchez, who was covering first base on a bunt. Gentry hit the bag before his face smacked into Sanchez's shoulder, so he got his single but also a concussion that could sideline him at least a week.
"That's kind of the whole personality behind this team -- go hard until you get knocked down," Lester said. "We try to use it as a figure of speech, not literally go out there and get knocked down."
The key, always, is what you do after you are knocked down, and in that regard, it sure doesn't hurt to have Lester on your side.