Lester's gem could be turning point for champs
Red Sox veteran matches Sale pitch for pitch, comes away with needed win
CHICAGO -- How great is baseball?
Two teams play for 14 innings one night. It takes one of them walking 15 guys, the last two by a backup infielder, for the other team, the one that made two errors in the first inning, to win.
And the night after walkapalooza, two of the best left-handers in the game, Jon Lester and Chris Sale, team up to make imaginations race.
Lester did a nice job of summing up the festivities.
"If you don't like that pitching," he said, "you don't like baseball."
Sale and Lester had combined to strike out 15 before either of them allowed a hit. A sixth-inning home run by Xander Bogaerts, the brilliant Red Sox rookie, broke the mood.
The Red Sox would go on to win 3-1, with closer Koji Uehara returning from his right shoulder scare to nail down the save. The night had the feel of a turning point for the defending World Series champs, who had lost eight of their last 11 before a 6-4 win on Wednesday night.
They'll return to Boston for an emotional series against the Orioles, with ceremonies scheduled on Sunday night and Monday to honor the city's response to last year's bombings at the Boston Marathon. But it could be some time before they find themselves in a battle like this one, with Lester matched up against Sale.
Thanks to Adam Eaton, you knew Thursday's game was going to be special early. The White Sox center fielder, who likes to play shallow, went back hard on a drive by David Ortiz in the first inning. He leaped at the wall to snatch a home run away from Big Papi.
The Red Sox icon stopped as he was rounding first. He looked toward Eaton, smiled and applauded.
Like Sale, Lester couldn't make it through the sixth with either his perfect game or shutout intact. A single off Bogaerts' glove by Tyler Flowers took care of the former, and an infield single by Eaton got Flowers home. Lester was having a great time on the mound.
"It's cool, it's fun," he said. "It was a heavyweight battle tonight, just who was going to make the mistake first. He did and then I gave it right back. It was a fun night to pitch."
Across 35th Street from U.S. Cellular Field, the White Sox Steve Trout and the Yankees' Rudy Law had worked through six innings with a double no-hit bid at Comiskey Park in July 1980. Sale and Lester didn't get quite that far, but with the stuff they had, it was easy to imagine either of them -- or even both of them -- going the distance.
Sale's pitch count was mounting even in the sixth inning. The Bogaerts homer came on the 94th pitch of the game, with 10 outs still to get. Manager Robin Ventura had used admirable caution in pitching Leury Garcia rather than extending one-inning reliever Daniel Webb to a fourth frame on Tuesday, but would he have had the long-term vision to lift Sale with a no-hitter in the making?
It would have been fun to find out.
"You start looking at where the pitches are compared to the no-hitter," Ventura said. "I won't say I was relieved when there was a home run, but you start thinking differently."
Sale, who walked three and hit Bogaerts on the foot in the plate appearance before the homer, left after seven innings and 127 pitches. Sale's last pitch was a 94-mph fastball that he blew past Ryan Roberts for his 10th strikeout. Fans stood and cheered as Sale walked to the dugout, no doubt knowing his work was over.
"Obviously [he's] very dominant. You saw that tonight," Lester said of Sale. "He has the ability to not only get a lot of mishits on all of his pitches, but to get swings and misses, strikeouts. He's very, very impressive to watch. Mixing all his pitches in, at all times, all counts. It was a fun night to be a pitcher."
Sale is five years younger than the 30-year-old Lester, who would last eight innings and wind up with the victory thanks to two Boston runs in the ninth. Sale throws harder and has more violent break on his pitches. This was his 11th double-figure strikeout game, and it came in only his 63rd career start. (Billy Pierce also had 11 double-figure outings for the White Sox, but he did it in 390 starts.)
But Sale hasn't yet had a shot to distinguish himself in October, the month when Lester has been extraordinary. He has World Series rings from 2007 and '13, going 3-0 against the Rockies and Cardinals, and it was amazing how badly he overmatched Adam Wainwright in the Games 1 and 5 last fall. Lester had that same kind of stuff against the White Sox, and he was locked in with his location, living in the bottom of the strike zone.
Ventura was asked what makes Lester so good.
"He runs it in, just the movement he has," Ventura said. "He's not up there at 97, 98 like some people. But the movement he has -- run it inside, and once he gets people looking inside, he can use the outer half of the plate. You see a lot of guys that are cutter guys who can't use the outer part of the plate. He can. Use both sides like that, you make guys look bad. They take pitches that get called strikes, or have to cheat to get to it, start early."
Lester, the cancer survivor who epitomizes Boston Strong, will become a free agent after this season if he and the Red Sox can't agree on his value, and they appeared far apart in talks that broke off at the end of Spring Training. But Lester likes being with the Red Sox, and the team loves what he gives them.
The contractual storyline will be there all season, but don't let it get in the way of appreciating the job he does on the mound. Like Lester said, if you don't like nights like Thursday, you don't like baseball.
Phil Rogers is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.