BOSTON -- Jon Lester finally got the support he deserved. The thing is, he didn't really need it.
In a vintage effort that will be placed right up next to his no-hitter in 2008 and his many outstanding postseason performances, Lester struck out a career-high 15 in eight shutout innings of a 6-3 win over Oakland on Saturday. It was the most strikeouts by a Red Sox pitcher since Pedro Martinez more than 13 years ago and the highest total for a Boston lefty in a nine-inning game. Ever. Lester and Martinez are now the only Red Sox hurlers in the past 100 years with eight starts allowing one or zero hits.
"That's as dominant a performance I've seen from a pitcher in a long time," said catcher David Ross, who helped guide Lester through his 18th career start with at least 10 strikeouts, which ties him with Smoky Joe Wood for third on Boston's all-time list behind Martinez and Roger Clemens.
"Just the combination of power and command was impressive," manager John Farrell said. "He was locked in seemingly from the first pitch of the game. He maintained his stuff throughout, four pitches for strikes, and three of those on both sides of the plate. So he was in command from the start."
The Sox had given Lester 11 runs of support in his first six starts while showcasing some pretty putrid defense behind him. Every five days he would tell reporters he knew that the fellas were giving their all. Verbal support of his failing teammates was becoming a regular occurrence.
On Saturday, both sides were finally in sync. Jonny Gomes hit an early grand slam and David Ortiz and David Ross went deep to complement some solid defense on those rare occasions when the ball was put in play (until the ninth inning, when the Sox committed two errors after Lester had already departed a 6-0 game). No longer left to lament a poor effort behind their ace, Lester's teammates returned the favor.
"I think I've seen every lefty in the game now and for a while. He's climbing that ladder," Gomes said. "I saw [Andy] Pettitte and Randy Johnson early on, him, and he's climbing the ladder as top -- not only in the league, in the game -- but he's getting up there with lefties that have played this game. And he's just now scratching the surface on his career. It's not like he's coming down. He's getting ready to take off."
In addition to flirting with the feats of Martinez and Clemens, Lester also became the first left-hander to strike out 15 and allow only one hit since Johnson in 1997. With so many big-time names floating about after Saturday's gem, Lester is indeed climbing the ladder.
"Obviously not one of those deals you focus on or worry about or anything like that," he said about the various statistics and achievements. "Just kind of happened today. It's an honor to be in with those guys' names. Hopefully get another day like this someday."
Interestingly enough, the day did not begin in a positive fashion. Lester had major issues with his cutter in the bullpen prior to the game. Ross actually said he was worried, calling the warm-up session a "terrible" one.
There were no such issues once the game began. With pinpoint control of the cutter, Lester had two strikeouts in a nine-pitch first. He had two more in the second and struck out the side after allowing his only hit to begin the third.
There were two more punchouts in the fourth and an inning-ending double play to get past a leadoff walk in the fifth. Lester struck out the first two batters in the sixth, worked a 1-2-3 seventh and finished with a flourish in the eighth. After issuing a leadoff walk to begin the frame, prompting some stirring in the Red Sox bullpen, he struck out Alberto Callaspo and Craig Gentry. That gave him a new career high for strikeouts, with the announcement pasted on the board above the bleachers to let the 37,042 on hand know about the latest Lester achievement.
Only he wasn't done.
Lester quickly got ahead 0-2 on old pal Josh Reddick, who then fouled off two pitches, took a ball and fouled off another. With the crowd standing as one, Reddick crushed one of Lester's few mistakes -- a curveball that stayed belt-high and got plenty of the plate -- but it soared foul down the right-field line.
Seconds later, Reddick looked at a fastball at the knees and on the outside corner for strike three, and Lester exited stage left. He was then able to answer questions about his teammates in a different way.
"It was big," Lester said of the early run support. "Jonny, a big swing first to put us up four early. It's huge for any pitcher. Just kind of takes the weight off your shoulders a little bit. You know you don't have to be as fine. You can give up a solo homer and it's still only one. Anytime guys are able to do that it relaxes us a little bit."
A bit more relaxed, Lester was able to dominate.