Josh Lester waited a long time for Sunday.
Almost eight years to the day after he was drafted, Lester recorded his first major league hit, a bases-loaded single amid the Orioles’ six-run third inning that propelled them to an 8-3 victory and a road series win against the San Francisco Giants.
“Obviously, it’s something that I’ve looked forward to for my entire life, since I was 5 years old playing baseball,” the 28-year-old Lester said. “But for it to come in a big moment of the game like that, with some guys on, was even better.”
Taken by the Detroit Tigers in the 13th round of the 2015 draft — three picks before Baltimore selected eventual All-Star outfielder Cedric Mullins — Lester reached the majors last September but went 0-for-5 in two games as a Tiger. Signed as a minor league free agent this offseason, he impressed the Orioles in spring training with his ability to play the corner spots in both the infield and outfield and hit the ball consistently hard. After an impressive start for Triple-A Norfolk, with 14 home runs and an .888 OPS, Lester joined the Orioles (37-22) in San Francisco on Saturday.
Manager Brandon Hyde cited the need for Lester’s left-handed bat ahead of a run of matchups with right-handed starters as the cause for his addition to both the active and 40-man rosters. Jordan Westburg, Baltimore’s No. 5 prospect according to Baseball America, was outperforming Lester in several metrics for Norfolk and was likewise not on the 40-man roster, but he bats right-handed, though he has had reverse splits for much of his professional career.
But even for an organization with baseball’s top farm system, contributions from elsewhere are needed. Lester didn’t appear in Saturday’s 4-0 loss, but with regular third baseman Gunnar Henderson exiting that game with back discomfort, Lester drew the start at third base Sunday. He grounded out with a runner on third in his first at-bat with Baltimore in the second inning, but came up again with the Orioles already holding a three-run lead and the bases loaded. Lester lined a two-out single into center field, driving in two with a third runner scoring on a throwing error by center fielder Austin Slater.
“What a cool moment for Josh Lester,” Hyde said. “A lot of minor league time and gets an opportunity and just gets an enormous hit for us.”
Lester said his parents, Jimmy and Beth, were at Oracle Park on Friday after his mom and sister made it to Saturday’s game. He figures the ball from his first hit will either head home with his parents or be shipped to the house he shares with his fiancée. He acknowledged there were times he doubted he would ever get that keepsake.
“Obviously, it’s a big weight off your shoulders and a big smile on your face when it does come,” Lester said.
Catcher James McCann, who started the third-inning rally with a walk, added an insurance run with a sixth-inning home run. Center fielder Aaron Hicks continued his strong first week with Baltimore with an RBI triple in the ninth. Since signing with the Orioles on Tuesday after Mullins suffered a right groin strain, Hicks is hitting .455 with a 1.207 OPS.
But the initial outburst, which also included a sacrifice fly from Adam Frazier and bases-loaded walk by Ryan Mountcastle, was more than enough support for Tyler Wells, who struck out a career-best nine batters while carrying a shutout into the sixth inning. Wells’ fifth straight outing with at least seven strikeouts tied Erik Bedard for the longest streak by an Oriole since 1957.
“I wasn’t trying to strike out a lot of guys today,” Wells said. “I was just trying to hit my spots, and fortunately, it worked out that way.”
After a one-out walk in the sixth, Blake Sabol homered on Wells’ 102nd pitch, ending the shutout and his afternoon. Wells’ changeup was his top offering, with the Giants (29-30) missing on half of their 14 swings against it.
“Wellsy was really good,” Hyde said. “That’s too bad he couldn’t get through the sixth. He was getting so many strikeouts and foul balls that he was throwing a lot of pitches, but makes that one mistake there for the homer, but he was mixing speeds so well.”
Behind Wells, a bullpen that largely struggled in the Orioles’ 2-4 homestand against Texas and Cleveland finished off a bounceback weekend. Mike Baumann retired the next five batters before a walk opened the eighth. Yennier Cano entered and allowed a double and run-scoring fielder’s choice before Ramón Urías, a Gold Glover who pinch hit for Lester in the top of the inning and replaced him at third, started a double play. Austin Voth worked a clean ninth as the Orioles improved to 20-10 on the road, tied for the second-best start in team history.
“We’ve been really scrappy,” Wells said, “and we’ve done a great job of battling.”
And a player who likewise didn’t give up delivered the day’s biggest hit.
“No matter how much you’re in the minor leagues, fast, slow, getting that first hit and getting to the big leagues is everybody’s dream,” Lester said. “But obviously, spending that much time in the minor leagues and kind of grinding your way up, it definitely means a lot to me.”
Around the horn
- After exiting Saturday’s game with lower back discomfort, Henderson was “feeling better,” Hyde said before the game, adding he’s confident Henderson won’t require a stint on the injured list.
- Although the Orioles will skip their fifth starter’s spot to start veteran right-hander Kyle Gibson in Tuesday’s series opener against Milwaukee, they have yet to commit to whether the rotation will continue beyond that, listing their starters for Wednesday and Thursday as “to be announced.” Dean Kremer and Kyle Bradish, respectively, would be on regular rest for those days.
Orioles at Brewers
Tuesday, 7:40 p.m.
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Source: Berkshire mont