Jon Lester's final year before hitting free agency is going better than he could've hoped. On Saturday, the left-hander thoroughly dominated Oakland over eight shutout innings, striking out a career-best 15 against just one hit and two walks to lead Boston to a 6-3 win over the Athletics. By Game Score, Lester's outing was the second-most dominant of the season; his 93 is tied with Jonny Cueto's 12-strikeout complete game shutout against Pittsburgh on April 16 and just a single point behind Andrew Cashner's one-hit shutout of Detroit on April 11. The 15 strikeouts also represent a season-high for all starters this season, and it's the first time a Red Sox starter has struck out 15 or more since Pedro Martinez did it in 2000.
Using a mix of four-seam fastballs, sinkers and cutters, Lester diced Oakland's lineup, allowing only a Craig Gentry single in the third inning. He started the game with a flourish, using only nine pitches to retire the side in the first inning, two on strikeouts. By the fifth inning, he'd already struck out 10 against the one hit and a walk to Derek Norris in the fifth, who was erased two batters later on a double play. In fact, Norris and Gentry were the only two hitters to reach against Lester, and Gentry was the only Oakland runner in eight innings to reach second base, getting there via a steal. Lester picked up a strikeout in every inning but the seventh and struck out the side in the third and the eighth. In that final frame, after walking Norris, Lester got Alberto Callaspo and Gentry both looking on cutters, then froze Josh Reddick with a 93 mph sinker on the eighth pitch of the at-bat and the 119th of his day.
Of Lester's 119 pitches, 76 went for strikes, and 98 were some form of fastball. His cutter was an especially potent weapon on the day; sitting at 88.7 mph but going as high as 92, Lester threw 33 cutters and got 24 strikes on them, including 16 swings and six whiffs. Seven of his 15 strikeouts came on the cutter, and of his 15 punchouts, nine were looking, as Lester pounded the corners with the cutter and sinker. The 15 strikeouts broke his career-high of 13 set back in 2010 against Seattle; it's Lester's 18th career game with double-digit strikeouts, tied for third-most in franchise history with Smokey Joe Wood.
Lester's 15-strikeout day is only the second time in the last four seasons that a starter has gone eight shutout innings with 15 or more strikeouts. The last to do it was Detroit's Anibal Sanchez, who struck out 17 over eight innings on April 26, 2013 against Atlanta. Prior to Lester, only 16 pitchers since 1914 had gone eight or more scoreless innings with 15 or more strikeouts, last achieved by Brandon Morrow, who struck out 17 Rays in a complete-game one-hit shutout for Toronto in 2010. The last player to strike out 15 or more in eight scoreless innings with just one hit allowed: Randy Johnson, who accomplished that in 1997 for Seattle against the Tigers.
The stellar day lowered Lester's ERA to 2.59 through 48 2/3 innings; his 58 strikeouts give him a strikeout-per-nine mark of 10.73, the sixth-highest rate in baseball, just ahead of Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Wacha, both of whom pitched Saturday as well. Lester's previous career-high in strikeout-per-nine was set in 2009, when he averaged 9.96 strikeouts per nine. His control has been impeccable as well, with a season walks-per-nine rate of just 1.85. You could argue that Lester's been a little unlucky as well, with a .328 batting average on balls in play; his FIP is a robust 2.16 so far.
The cutter has been the big reason for Lester's fast start to the season. Going into Saturday, opposing hitters had managed a mere .214 batting average on Lester's cutter, striking out 21 times on the pitch. All those numbers will only improve after Saturday's outing. That cutter dominance has helped offset some slippage on his four-seamer. On top of that, Lester has flat-out dominated left-handers this season with the pitch, as southpaws are hitting only .111 on his cutter so far. Although Oakland didn't offer many left-handers to Lester — their platoon-heavy roster went with eight right-handed hitters—Lester did manage to stymie the only same-sider in the A's lineup, striking out Reddick three times. Lester's day was a big boost for Boston, which won its second straight game against Oakland and is now a game shy of .500, but it's also a nice addition to the resume ahead of what could be massively lucrative offseason. The 30-year-old Lester is set to be a free agent at season's end, and extension talks with the Red Sox have yielded nothing so far. And every good outing helps, as Lester will be fighting for dollars against fellow aces Max Scherzer, James Shields and Justin Masterson. So far, Lester couldn't have asked for a better start to that contract push.