OAKLAND – Since you wouldn’t know it from the box scores, Jon Lester will let you in on a little secret:
He’s been fighting himself a bit over his past couple of starts.
He’s not spotting the fastball quite like normal. His cutter, so feared around the American League, isn’t diving out of the strike zone like he’d prefer.
How nice it must be for a pitcher to “struggle” while giving up just one run over his past two starts (13 innings) that both result in victories next to his name.
It’s not always a splashy performance from Lester, just effective and oh-so-timely as far as his team is concerned. He delivered once again Friday in the A’s 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, allowing just a Ryan Howard solo homer over seven innings.
“He’s been terrific every time out there,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “Unfortunately, you feel like you don’t have to score that many runs for him because he’s gonna do his job. You’d like to feel you could make it easy for him once in a while.”
Of course, that’s not the A’s style these days. After scoring three runs in the second, they went silent with the bats after that. Up 3-1, they stranded bases loaded in the seventh and eighth innings, leaving a sellout crowd of 35,067 to wonder if more late-inning heartache might be in store.
It wasn’t, as setup man Luke Gregerson and closer Sean Doolittle – not to mention some excellent defense from third baseman Josh Donaldson – salted away just the A’s third victory in their past nine contests.
Donaldson, who had a forgettable 0-for-4 night at the plate, turned in two important plays in the field. He threw home to cut down Freddy Galvis on Carlos Ruiz’s chopper in the eighth.
“I felt like the speed of the ball, the height of the ball, it was enough for me to still have a chance,” Donaldson said, “so I ended up taking a chance.”
Then he went to a knee for a sliding stop on Marlon Byrd’s grounder down the line in the ninth and made the long throw to get him at first.
That helped Doolittle notch the save with a perfect ninth, two days after he blew a save that led to an ugly 6-1 loss to Texas.
Doolittle was happy to close out a ‘W’ for Lester (16-10), who brings an intensity that Doolittle says is infectious.
“He pitches with a lot of emotion, and I think guys pick up on that,” Doolittle said. “Before (Lester was acquired from Boston) we hadn’t really seen him too much. I just thought he was kind of a robot with that cutter, going out there and doing his thing. But that energy he has out there, I think the whole team feeds off it.”
Speaking of the cutter, which Lester is known for, it’s not working to his liking right now. That’s one reason he’s been going to his curve more, with good results. Melvin said it’s been a key pitch for Lester over his 10 starts with the A’s, during which he’s 6-3 with a 2.20 ERA.
“Really, the whole year it’s been a really solid pitch for me,” Lester said. “In the past, it has been as well. But I kind of lost it for a little while, got predominantly fastball-cutter. And the second half of last year, I really kind of figured out why it works.
“We’re able to kind of exploit that as far as establishing the fastball and making them swing at that, making them swing at the cutter. And then we’re able to just dump that (curve) in to the bottom of the zone or bring it in for strikes early in the count.”
Lester’s outing, imperfect though it might have been in his mind, was important as the A’s jumped back into the AL wild-card lead, a half-game ahead of Kansas City with nine to play. After getting swept by Texas, the A’s needed a victory by any means possible to rinse out that bad taste.
Melvin put it best.
“I know we’re gonna be in a better mood (Saturday) than we were today.”