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Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Lester traveled hard road to no-hitter

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

BOSTON -- It had already been a long day for Terry Francona by the time the ninth inning rolled around Monday night.

Francona had begun the day in Philadelphia, having flown there the previous night to attend his son Nick's graduation at the University of Pennsylvania before arriving back at Fenway Park a little more than three hours before first pitch.

Then, as he watched what Jon Lester was accomplishing in the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals, Francona felt a familiar sensation return from the morning: paternal pride.

As the inning built, a choked-up Francona felt bashful about the swelling emotion until he turned to pitching coach John Farrell and found he was not the only one being overcome.

"He was being a big baby next to me," Francona said. "It made me feel a little bit better."

When Lester was done overpowering the Royals with a four-seam fastball he located up in the strike zone at 94 mph, it was hard to find a face beaming more than Francona's.

"This probably isn't fair to say," Francona said after Lester, 24, became the second under-25 Red Sox pitcher to throw a no-hitter at Fenway since last fall, "but I feel like my son graduated and my son threw a no-hitter … It's probably selfish on my part to even say something like that. But I think it's obvious how we feel about this kid."

Buchholz on Lester

Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz says teammate Jon Lester's no-no was better than his own last season. Buchholz also shares what he said to Lester after the game. Listen
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Francona's feelings, it turned out, weren't misplaced.

"Through everything I've been through," Lester said, "[Francona] has been like a second dad to me."

No-hitters are, by definition, emotional moments, but Lester's was something truly powerful. Less than two years earlier, he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Now, he had achieved something no Red Sox lefty had done in more than half a century.

The winning pitcher in last October's World Series-clinching sweep against Colorado, Lester seemingly has a knack for big moments. They are made even more dramatic considering his successful comeback from cancer.

"Learning to dominate at the big league level is one thing," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. "But it's nothing compared to what he's already overcome."

From the time Lester took the mound in the ninth, having pitched to one batter over the minimum, Fenway stood as one, just as it had last Sept. 1 when Clay Buchholz had trotted out for the final outs of his no-hitter against Baltimore.

Monday night, Buchholz watched from the dugout, lodged on the disabled list. He recalled experiencing what his teammate was going through.

"He looked a little nervous going out for the ninth," said Buchholz. "It's a different feeling for everybody."

Buchholz had reacted to the final out of his effort with an almost eerie calm before becoming, as he put it, "speechless." Lester, meanwhile, demonstrated his composure by coolly conducting on-field interviews after the final out.

Last season, Lester's battle was so fresh that he hadn't healed -- physically or emotionally. It took much of the year to fully rebuild his shoulder strength. Mentally, he fought against the well-intentioned sentiment of supporters.

They were happy just to see him healthy; Lester wasn't satisfied because he wasn't winning enough to fulfill his own expectations, his own competitive tastes.

Earlier Monday, there was no hint of what was to come. Lester's bullpen session was "terrible," and Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek termed the first few innings "a struggle" as the lefty grappled with his grip. The baseballs were slick because of the cool, dry weather. Lester probably got away with some pitches, too.

The night's best defensive play came too early for it to be truly appreciated. Jacoby Ellsbury's sprawling grab of Jose Guillen's sinking liner to end the fourth was terrific, but few recognized its importance until later in the game.

For sheer drama, it lacked the brilliance of Dustin Pedroia's diving, late-inning stop of a grounder headed for center field in Buchholz's masterpiece, but it served as the perfect counterpoint to that game -- both games were authored by homegrown pitchers and saved by homegrown position players.

Epstein, under whom the Sox drafted Buchholz, Ellsbury and Pedroia (Epstein was assistant GM when Lester was picked in 2002), worried that two no-hitters within a 40-game stretch at Fenway might spoil everyone.

"I hope our fans don't come to think of this as a rite of passage for our young pitchers," Epstein joked.

The success for both Buchholz and Lester -- however fluky, which no-hitters can be -- reflects well on the team's ability to stockpile and nurture quality young arms. But Monday night was validation of another sort, too.

"I think winning the World Series is better evidence that we're doing things the right way," Epstein said. "But it's important, with young pitchers, to celebrate good nights because there are some rough nights along the way, too.

"The development of young pitchers is not linear. It's not a straight line. There are times it's incredibly frustrating. A night like this shows the potential these guys have. Then, there are other nights when you see how hard it is [to develop young pitching]. Every night, all over the game, there are incredibly talented pitchers struggling to get through their starts."

The Yankees and countless other teams can vouch for that. But nights like Monday are reminders of the potential payoffs, too.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.