Lester is giving the A's exactly what they hoped for
SEATTLE -- Want to know why the A's were willing to pay the price to add Jon Lester at the July 31 Trade Deadline? Simple. He is a proven big-game pitcher, something that Oakland, as solid as its rotation has been, was missing.
The benefit of Lester's presence was evident on Sunday. The Athletics were faced with arguably their most crucial game of the season, and even though Lester had to mix and match his way through six innings, he was able to lay the groundwork in a 4-0 victory against the Mariners at Safeco Field. The win kept the A's in control of their playoff destiny with two weeks remaining in the season.
Dominating? Not at all.
The result, however, was there. The Athletics lost Friday night's series opener against the Mariners, who along with the Royals are battling the A's for the two American League Wild Card spots, but Oakland rebounded to claim back-to-back victories for the first time since Aug. 22-23.
Now the A's lead the AL Wild Card race, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Royals and 2 1/2 in front of the Mariners, and they open a nine-game homestand on Tuesday before finishing the season with four games in Texas on Sept. 25-28.
For that, they can thank Lester, who has seen the A's win six of his nine starts since he was acquired from the Red Sox.
"That's how you tell the good ones," said A's manager Bob Melvin. "They don't have their best stuff and they are still on top of [the game]."
Seattle had eight baserunners in the first five innings. None of them scored. The Mariners had eight at-bats with runners in scoring position -- five of them with fewer than two outs -- and couldn't get a hit.
Lester walked four batters. He gave up four hits. Lester saw Seattle take advantage of an achy Derek Norris behind the plate and steal four bases. He did not, however, buckle, retiring the final six batters he faced in a 110-pitch effort that included 39 pitches with runners in scoring position.
"My stuff was all right, but I just didn't have command," Lester admitted. "You have starts where you are not feeling good but make pitches when you need to. You try to find a way to keep your team in it."
Sunday was one of those starts. Lester found the way.
Lester got Kendrys Morales to ground into an inning-ending double play with men on first and third in the first, and he struck him out to end the fifth with Austin Jackson on second. After Kyle Seager's one-out single in the second and a walk to Justin Smoak, Lester struck out Chris Taylor and Jesus Sucre on nine pitches.
Chris Denorfia singled and stole second with one out in the third, and Lester sandwiched groundouts from Robinson Cano and Corey Hart around a walk of Morales. And in the fourth, after back-to-back strikeouts of Seager and Smoak, Taylor walked and stole second before Lester got out of the inning with a groundout by Sucre.
"These games mean more than when you go out and walk your way through the lineup," said Lester. "Anytime you are able to keep your team in it and give the offense a chance to get in the dugout with a lead is huge."
And that is what Lester has proven he can do, which is why the Athletics were willing to give up the run-producing bat of Yoenis Cespedes to acquire him. There has been plenty of speculation that the A's slide from the top of the AL West to 10 games behind the Angels is because Oakland's offense went flat without the presence of Cespedes.
The loss certainly has had some impact, but having not been to a World Series since 1990 and having not won a World Series championship since '89, the A's also know that when it comes to late-season success, the most important criteria is dominant starting pitching.
That's why the addition of Lester was such a passion for general manager Billy Beane. The left-hander has a 2.11 ERA over 13 postseason appearances with the Red Sox, 11 of them starts. He is 3-0 in three World Series starts, allowing one run in 21 innings.
And Lester has shown he can pitch well down the stretch in the regular season. He is not only 24-10 during September in his career, but in the four previous Septembers with the Red Sox that resulted in trips to the postseason, he was 14-2 with a 2.62 ERA.
As one scout said on Sunday, "Some guys know how to find that extra gear when there's something at stake."
Lester is one of those guys.