As a pack of reporters crowded around Jon Lester after the Red Sox' 6-3 win Saturday afternoon, David Ortiz grabbed his bag and headed toward the clubhouse door -- but not before sharing a quick opinion with anyone within earshot.
"Pay him!" Big Papi bellowed, without breaking stride.
The endorsement was nice, especially coming from a franchise icon whose own contract history speaks to the clout he holds within the organization. But on this day, Lester and his left arm made a louder case for a contract extension than any other person could.
In a performance that evoked the names of Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, and Randy Johnson in statistical comparisons, Lester set a team record by becoming the first Red Sox southpaw ever to register 15 strikeouts in a nine-inning game, and yielded the overmatched Athletics only a single and a couple of walks over eight scoreless frames.
Whenever Lester and his agents next sit down with Ben Cherington and Boston's brass to discuss a new deal, it's a safe assumption that the free agent-to-be will cite Saturday among the examples of why he deserves to be paid like one of baseball's elite pitchers. Whether the Red Sox ultimately agree still remains to be seen, but on this particular afternoon Lester made it look hard to argue that there are many much better -- and to see how that happened let's look at each of his career-high 15 strikeouts, which (thanks to some help from Brooks-Baseball.net) make clear that the key to his putting hitters away so dominantly was simple: location, location, location.
Coco Crisp -- Called strike three, 88 mph cutter
Catcher David Ross said Lester's precision was there "from the get-go," and you can see here that he wasn't kidding. He put Crisp away on three pitches, all of which were at the edges of the strike zone, then he got ahead of Donaldson, 1-2, by putting pitches on the lower corners. He then finished the third baseman with a curveball that broke into the dirt.
"From pitch one he was working the corners," Ross said. "Really aggressive down in the zone. When he's got that two-plane fastball going, it really, really worked good. That's as dominant a performance as I've seen."
Yoenis Cespedes -- Called strike three, 94 mph fastball
After the game, Lester refuted the notion that he didn't make any mistakes, and the second pitch to Cespedes may qualify as one he got away with. So might the second and third pitches to Norris, both of those being fouled-off fastballs.
But establishing location can force a hitter to change his approach -- and thus just because the ball might look hittable here, Norris might not have been expecting it, in either case. Often times the set up is as important as the put-away pitch.
"I think the biggest thing early was I able to establish in -- not only on swings, but on non-swings," Lester said. "A called strike, that's huge for my cutter. Then guys can't lay off a pitch that's close in. I think that was the biggest thing for me, establishing in and going from there."
Josh Reddick -- Called strike three, 94 mph fastball
The lefty was most strenuously tested in the third, with Craig Gentry notching Oakland's only hit, then becoming the only A's runner into scoring position by stealing second, and with Punto and Crisp each working the count full. But Lester didn't give in -- even running a cutter off the plate to get Crisp chasing, and winning lengthy battles with his two former teammates.
"Seemingly any pitch that David called, Jon was able to execute," Farrell said. "And when you think of the whole package that he brought to the mound for eight innings, it doesn't compare to a no-hitter but given it's a bloop single to right field, it was just an outstanding performance on Jon's part."
Jed Lowrie -- Swinging strike three, 92 mph fastball
Two more strikeouts, two more pitches on the black used by Lester to win a battle with a good hitter. Remember, Lester whiffed Donaldson with a curveball in the first inning; he tried to do it again in this at-bat, but the third baseman didn't chase -- so Lester came back and froze him with a fastball on the inside corner at the knees.
"That was a lot of fun," Ross said. "When a guy is doing what he was doing today, it's fun to be a catcher."
Alberto Callaspo -- Swinging strike three, 88 mph cutter
Away. In. Away. In.
"He was phenomenal. When you mix his stuff with my brain, the possibilities are endless," Ross said with a big smile and a laugh. "I got a homer, too."
Josh Reddick -- Swinging strike three, 93 mph fastball
Lester left some pitches over the plate to Reddick, but the lone lefty in the Oakland lineup didn't make him pay. Then Punto put up another fight, again working the count full, but Lester ultimately caught him looking at three pitches over the outer third -- a fastball, then a curve, then finally a cutter.
"We threw a lot of backdoor cutters today," Lester said. "I think we established early from the umpire that I was on the plate with it, and when you have that there's no reason to go away from it. Keep trying it until he proves that he's going to go out there and start hitting it."
Alberto Callaspo -- Called strike three, 87 mph cutter
It looked for a moment as though Lester might be tiring. He didn't strike anyone out in the seventh -- oh, the nerve -- then he walked Norris as the leadoff man in the eighth. But look at the locations of the pitches Lester made to the last three hitters he faced, and it's clear that there was still something in the tank.
He gave Callaspo nothing to hit before punching him out, then, after throwing only three curveballs all day, he called on Uncle Charlie a couple times to get ahead of Gentry, 1-2, before freezing him with a cutter down and away.
And look at the cluster in the low, outside corner against Reddick. That battle used pitches 112-119 of the afternoon for Lester, and that group in that location shows just how strong he was at that late point in the contest. The only pitches away from that spot were an 0-2 cutter that stayed inside; the only fastball of the encounter, thrown up and out of the zone with hopes it would be chased on 0-2; and the first curveball Reddick faced among the 17 pitches he saw Saturday.
Other than that, Lester put the ball exactly where he wanted it. And where Reddick really had no chance.
"I think the biggest thing was just fastball command, yet again," Lester said. "We were able to get some guys sped up in and put them away [with] the backdoor cutter and fastball away. Later in the game we started mixing some offspeed pitches in there just to make sure they knew that we had them out there."
At the end of the day, Lester had thrown 76 of his 119 pitches for strikes, including 14 swings and misses, which matched a season-high, but doesn't rank among his 10 most since 2010.
That suggests his dominance wasn't about the so-called "stuff" as much as it was about his ability to apply them effectively -- he got seven strikeouts on fastballs, sevene on cutters, and one on the curve -- and most impressively his ability to put them where he wanted. When he wanted. Time and again, as the strike zone maps show above.
And as will make Lester a lot of money if he can continue to do it on anywhere near that same level the rest of the season.
"A few change-up ground balls late, but basically fastball, cutter, and he was spotting them," Ross said. "He probably threw five pitches all day that had a lot of the plate. He was really working the corners good, taking balls around the back side to righties, and in the front door to lefties. He did a great job."