Programming note: For complete coverage of the A’s-Royals Wild Card game, watch Yahoo SportsTalk Live tonight at 5:00 and 11:00 on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
KANSAS CITY – Long before he ever toed a major league pitcher’s mound, Jon Lester’s competitive spirit was shining through on a smaller stage.
“Even as a kid, playing backyard basketball and home run derby, a lot of neighbor kids didn’t like playing with me because I always wanted to win,” the A’s left-hander said Monday. “It always had to go one more out, one more game, whatever it was. I’ve just always been that way.”
That inner drive has helped Lester become one of the best postseason pitchers of his generation. He’ll have the opportunity to build on that reputation Tuesday, when he takes the mound for Oakland against the Kansas City Royals in the American League wild card game, set for 5:07 p.m. at Kauffman Stadium.
The A’s have been bounced from the American League Division Series each of the past two seasons, reaching the brink of advancement before being denied by Detroit in Game 5 losses.
This situation is different. The A’s face a one-game win-or-go home scenario against a team that beat them five times in seven regular-season meetings this season. Kauffman Stadium promises to be rocking for the Royals’ first postseason game since they captured the World Series back in 1985.
But in Lester, the A’s feel they’ve got the ideal steadying presence taking the ball in such an environment. They traded All-Star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox on July 31 in return for Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes, just to trot him out in games such as this one.
In 11 career postseason starts with Boston, Lester was 6-4 with a 1.97 ERA (16 ER in 73 IP). That ERA ranks fourth all-time among American League lefties with a minimum of 40 postseason innings. Lester has also won all three of his World Series starts and given up just one run in 21 innings in the Fall Classic.
That body of work simply supplements Lester’s amazing baseball story. Before emerging as one of the major league’s most dominant starters, he fought a successful and well-documented bout with cancer of the lymph nodes. Diagnosed late during his rookie season of 2006, Lester underwent offseason chemotherapy treatments and was back pitching for the Red Sox by July 2007.
He’s a fighter, off the field and on it.
“I like games that matter,” said Lester, 30. “The spotlight’s on you. I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I’ve never been given everything. I’ve always had to go out and grind for it, and make sure that people know I’m not gonna give up. That’s who I am, that’s what makes me. I guess that’s why I like these situations.”
[STIGLICH: Wild Card berth lifts some pressure off A's]
He’ll engage in a marquee pitching duel Tuesday with Royals ace James Shields, who went 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA this season. Like Lester, Shields becomes a free agent after this season and is expected to leave his current team because of the riches he’ll be offered by other larger-payroll clubs.
“It’s two frontline guys,” A’s shortstop Jed Lowrie said. “I think when we decided to go to this wild-card format, this is exactly the matchup we wanted. As a players’ union, as the league, I think this is exactly what this game is all about.”
A’s manager Bob Melvin was put on the spot somewhat during Monday’s media session with a question regarding Lester. If he fails to throw a gem Tuesday, does it reflect poorly on the A’s decision to trade an immensely talented player like Cespedes, given that Lester was acquired to deliver in games such as this?
“He can go out there and pitch a shutout, and if we don’t score any runs, it’s not gonna matter,” Melvin said. “It’s not all on Jon Lester tomorrow. Jon Lester is the guy you brought in for these type of games, but he’s not the only one that’s going out there tomorrow.”