When Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane made the trade for Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester on July 31, it shocked the baseball world.
Tonight, that trade’s “success” or “failure” will be permanently etched in stone—and perhaps on Beane’s career.
The A’s take on the Kansas City Royals in the American League Wild Card game at Kauffman Stadium, and with Lester on the mound, Oakland must win to move on in the postseason. For a team that had major World Series aspirations over the summer, it’s a strange position to be in.
All that doesn’t matter now: the A’s are here, and Lester must win the game for them. His sterling postseason resume—six wins and a 2.11 ERA in 76.2 innings over 11 starts and two relief appearances with the Red Sox from 2007-13—gives the Oakland club confidence they can win this game.
They’ve been lacking that a lot down the stretch, as their 16-30 finish to the season dropped them from the top seed in the AL playoffs to the last team in. But Lester’s starts for the A’s since July 31 have been very encouraging: they won seven of his 11 starts in an Oakland uniform, and the veteran lefty delivered a 2.35 ERA in 76.2 innings for the A’s.
Throw in Lester’s amazing record against the Royals in his career—he’s 9-3 with a 1.84 ERA against K.C. in 13 starts and 88 innings pitched—and you know Oakland feels it can win this game, regular season finish be damned.
Maybe that’s what Beane really traded for: the confidence to win the big game in the postseason, after losing Game Fives in the AL Division Series in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2012 and 2013—five of those at the O.co Coliseum. From Gil Heredia 14 years ago to Sonny Gray last year, the A’s never really had the lights-out guy ready for an all-the-marbles game.
Oh sure, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito both started Game Fives for Oakland—but the results speak for themselves. Mulder lost two of them, actually. Against the Detroit Tigers the last two seasons, the A’s sent rookie starters to the mound against Justin Verlander.
Lester is in an Oakland uniform for this exact reason: to win the big game against the other team’s best guy—in this case, the Royals’ James Shields.
And if the A’s emerge victorious tonight, Beane will have won—albeit temporarily, because there are more games to come if Oakland advances—the gamble he made on July 31.
If Lester loses, it’ll be a long winter of discontent in Oakland for Beane and the A’s fans … and, perhaps, a lifetime of regret.