There's room for a gentleman's disagreement among the scouts and talent evaluators. Maybe Jon Lester is a Cy Young Award winner-in-training or just a garden-variety, middle-of-the-rotation guy. But 37 starts into his big league career, one thing can't be denied: The kid sure has a flair for the dramatic.
You figured nothing could top Game 4 of the 2007 World Series, when Lester beat Colorado in Boston's championship clincher a mere 10 months after completing cancer treatments at his home in Tacoma, Wash. Lester's performance made pitching coach John Farrell's eyes well with tears and prompted teammate Curt Schilling to coin a new word to define grit, competitiveness and chutzpah.
Lester's 4-3 win over the Rockies was, in Schilling's estimation, the "clutch-iest" performance he had ever seen.
But as Lester discovered Monday, nothing quite compares to a brisk spring evening in New England, watching the tension build and the love rain down from the Fenway stands as Royal after Kansas City Royal takes a seat. Just when it appeared that Lester was settling into a nice, inconspicuous apprenticeship behind Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield, he decided to go all Clay Buchholz on us.
The numbers added up to jubilation, as Lester tossed the first no-hitter by a Red Sox left-hander since Mel Parnell in 1956. He threw 20 of 29 first-pitch strikes, carved up both sides of the plate and rode his adrenaline to 96 mph in the ninth inning before whiffing Alberto Callaspo on his 130th pitch in a 7-0 Boston victory.
After manager Terry Francona came onto the field and nearly hugged the breath right out of him, Lester shared the essence of their conversation in an on-field TV interview.
"He said he was proud of me," Lester said. "We've been through a lot the last couple of years, and he's been like a second dad to me. It's just a special moment right there."
Some no-hitters seem to hang by a thread, but this one developed a sense of momentum and an air of inevitability as the evening progressed. The Royals continue to make strides under general manager Dayton Moore and manager Trey Hillman, but it has more to do with Zack Greinke, Joakim Soria and the pitching than the offense -- which ranks 28th in the majors in runs scored. The Royals, you might recall, were the team that helped get Cleveland pitcher C.C. Sabathia's $100 million dream back on track after his dreadful start in April.
Nevertheless, Lester had to skirt a few minefields on his way to making history. Royals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek entered Monday leading the American League in hitting. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are hovering around .280 and Jose Guillen has begun earning his $12 million salary this month. Plus, the Royals are batting .285 against lefties.
And Lester? He's looked like a 24-year-old former wunderkind in the middle of a learning curve. He's physically stronger now that he's further removed from cancer treatments, and he has added a changeup to complement his fastball, curveball and cutter. But he entered the game with a 2-2 record, a 3.95 ERA and 33 strikeouts and 29 walks.
Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury's diving catch on Guillen's blooper in the fourth will be remembered as the no-hit saver in much the same way Dustin Pedroia's spectacular defense preserved Buchholz's no-hitter against Baltimore in September. But it was impossible to overlook the contribution of catcher Jason Varitek, who did the usual mind-meld with his pitcher on the way to catching his fourth career no-hitter.
"Every pitcher has complete trust in what he calls," Farrell said when reached by phone Monday night, "and that allows guys to relax so that their best stuff comes out."
In the late innings, the noise from the stands had to be loud to drown out all those grinding teeth in the Boston dugout. Farrell ferociously chomped gum from the top step, and owners John Henry and Tom Werner gradually shifted from an upstairs suite to the box seats to watch the conclusion. By that time, Manny Ramirez had taken his inevitable seat in favor of a defensive replacement.
Now that the hugs and high fives are over, recent history tells us that the follow-up to a no-hitter isn't necessarily a straight vertical line. When Detroit's Justin Verlander blew away the Brewers in June 2007, the praise was so effusive it appeared he could just skip the rest of his career and go straight to Cooperstown. Now, Verlander is 1-7 with a 6.05 ERA for a last-place club and smack in the middle of a reality check.
Buchholz, who dazzled the Orioles in September, is 2-3 with a 5.53 ERA and currently on the disabled list with a broken fingernail. That didn't prevent him from applauding his teammate like crazy Monday.
When you think about what might have been, it's amazing that Lester was even here -- and his recovery from anaplastic large cell lymphoma was only part of the backdrop. Remember those Ramirez-for-Alex Rodriguez trade talks between Boston and Texas in December 2003? Lester would have been headed to Texas in the deal if the two clubs had managed to pull it off.
"Jon has lived a full life at age 24 for what he's endured, overcome and experienced," Farrell said. "And he has such a bright future. When you look at his attributes, both physically and mentally, you can envision him being a premium starter in the big leagues for a long, long time."
In the immediate aftermath of the 18th no-hitter in Red Sox history, it's not the time for would-haves, could-haves or should-haves. Jon Lester's dreams keep turning into reality, and he likes things just the way they are.