He put the ball in his cowboy boot. A temporary refuge, to be sure, but a measure of how Jon Lester chose to wear his fame on a magical, windswept Monday night in May.
The Red Sox lefthander threw a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals last night at Fenway Park, which in baseball is often cast as an immortal act but for a cancer survivor is something to be taken with a touch of modesty, a pinch of humor, and, in a quiet moment, to be stuck in your shoe.
Yet for a guy determined to be seen as nothing special because of his illness, Lester has shown an uncanny knack for doing the extraordinary, and all by the age of 24.
Last October, Lester won the deciding game of the World Series, just 14 months removed from his diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Last night, with the assist of a remarkable diving catch by Jacoby Ellsbury, he threw the first no-hitter of the 2008 season, the 18th in club history, and first by a Sox pitcher since rookie Clay Buchholz last Sept. 1, and the first by a Sox lefthander since Mel Parnell more than a half-century ago.
"His story is a good story as it is," said Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, who was among the gleeful throng of teammates that engulfed Lester after he struck out Alberto Callaspo for the final out of a 7-0 win over the Royals witnessed by a sellout crowd of 37,746 likely to grow exponentially in the years to come. "But to add a no-hitter to it, it adds something great to the story.
"I think people will now remember what he did tonight on the mound as something special, instead of he's a young kid who had cancer. It shows his ability has come full circle. Besides the no-hitter, he shows he can really shut down a team, because he has that kind of stuff."
Funny thing is, Lester said, if you'd been down in the bullpen with him when he was warming up, you'd have sworn he wouldn't get out of the first inning. That's no exaggeration, pitching coach John Farrell said.
"To be quite frank and somewhat ironic," Farrell said, "it was probably the most erratic he was of any bullpen throughout this season. I think maybe there was a little frustration warming up, things weren't clicking the way he wanted. But from the first pitch on, it was evident things were clicking."
The first pitch, on a 56-degree night with a 23-mile-an-hour wind blowing from the west knocking down most balls headed toward left field, came at 7:06 p.m. and was a 93 mile-an-hour fastball to David DeJesus. It was called a strike, and it set a tone. Of the 29 batters he faced, he threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of them. The radar gun registered fastballs at 94, 95, and 96 miles an hour.
"It seemed like he got stronger as the game went on," Farrell said. "He had all four pitches working. His fastball command, how powerful he was, for all of us that was something special to witness.
"We've all tried to speculate since the onset of his illness, but I think it's evident, from the power he showed tonight and the way he sustained it, he's clearly back to where the expectations were, are, and what he was like pre-Jon Lester situation."
Lester walked Billy Butler with one out in the second. Miguel Olivo forced him at second with a ground ball to Lowell at third, and Olivo reached second on a wild pickoff throw by Lester. He would be one of two Royals to reach second base.
The other was Esteban German, who walked to lead off the ninth. In between, Lester set down 20 Royals in succession. Seven of his nine strikeouts came in that span. The Royals hit only six balls in the air to the outfield. One was a sinking liner by Jose Guillen to right-center with two out in the fourth. Ellsbury was shaded to left-center against Guillen, the Kansas City DH who earlier in the day had been named the American League's Player of the Week. Ellsbury started sprinting, and at the last moment, he went into a dive. The ball stuck into the web of his glove inches off the grass.
Lester had turned to watch.
"He got a great jump," said Lester. "I did turn around and he was running. He didn't start back. I was just glad he caught it. He made a great catch. He's done that for us all year."
By the sixth, certainly the seventh, Lester was aware that he had a no-hitter in progress. None of this finding a solitary spot on the bench between innings and avoiding teammates.
"I don't just sit there and think about things," he said. "I talk to people. If you're sitting there thinking of what you're trying to do every second of the game, you wear yourself out mentally."
His teammates knew, too. Lester may have been cool. No one else was.
"I don't know how in the hell he can be more nervous than I am," said fellow pitcher Josh Beckett. "I'm sure everyone else on the bench was feeling the same way."
The crowd was on its feet through the seventh, when Lester blew a high fastball past Guillen to end the inning, and again in the eighth, when Butler looked at a third strike, Olivo went down swinging, and Mark Teahen flied to center.Teahen had collected the only hit back on July 18, 2006, when Lester and Jonathan Papelbon had combined on a one-hit shutout, but there was no suspense riding on that hit; it came in the second inning.
The victor in last night's game never was in doubt. The Sox sent 10 batters to the plate in the third against Royals rookie Luke Hochevar. J.D. Drew singled to open the inning, and Jason Varitek sent him to third with a hit-and-run single.
Julio Lugo hit into a double play, Drew scoring, but Ellsbury revved up the inning again with a triple to the triangle. Hochevar walked Dustin Pederoia on four pitches, then lost David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez on full counts to force home another run. Mark Grudzielanek then dropped Lowell's popup for two runs, and Kevin Youkilis's ground-rule double brought home another run.
The Sox made it 7-0 in the sixth when Drew was hit by a pitch and Varitek homered into the right-field seats, his fifth home run of the season.
Only the no-hitter was in doubt as the Royals came to bat in the ninth.
"I looked up in the ninth and you're trying to keep your emotions in check," manager Terry Francona said, "and I went to say something to John Farrell and he was being a big baby next to me. It made me feel a little bit better."
No one felt good when Lester walked German to start the ninth.
"When I walked the leadoff guy," Lester said, "I had to step back and tell myself I don't have to be too fine. Let them hit the ball, let them put it in play. Let the guys behind me make the plays."
Tony Pena Jr. chopped a grounder to third. Lowell threw him out as German advanced to second. DeJesus skidded a grounder to Youkilis, who waved off Lester and made the play himself. Two out.
Up came Callaspo, who had entered the game for Grudzielanek in the bottom of the seventh, Royals manager Trey Hillman deciding that Grudzielanek's night (the dropped popup, two whiffs, a comebacker to Lester) had been tough enough.
"The last at-bat? To be honest, I don't even remember," Lester said. "I do know that early in the at-bat he fouled off a good curveball and a good cutter. We'd be doing that all night, throwing the four-seam cutter in, then try to go with the four-seam fastball away. We got some swings and misses and some bad contact."
This would be a swing and miss. Lester thrust both fists forward before being lifted in the air by Varitek, who himself made history by tying the major league record for no-hitters caught (four).
Francona whispered something in Lester's ear.
"This probably isn't fair to say, but I feel like my son graduated and my son threw a no-hitter," said Francona, whose son Nick had graduated from Penn earlier in the day, and who had grown close to Lester during his ordeal.
Farrell, who had lost a no-hitter to the Royals with two outs in the ninth on a May night in 1989, beamed.
"Joy," he said. "You feel joy for a kid like that."
Winning the final game of a World Series. Throwing a no-hitter. How do you pick between them? You don't, Lester said.
"The World Series is obviously the World Series," he said. "How many people get to say they've won that? A no-hitter is a no-hitter. How many people can say they've done that?
"They're both up there. They both mean a heck of a lot to me. It's something I'll cherish for a long time."
He won't be alone.