SAN FRANCISCO — Just this week, Josh Lester entered the batting cage in Norfolk with infield prospect Jordan Westburg. They go through drills together because they’re often the first two ready to hit in the cages.
Besides their promptness for pregame routines, they have little else in common. Westburg is a 24-year-old former first-round draft pick who appears near the top of many prospect rankings. Lester is a 28-year-old former 13th-round pick who has worked his way through the minors in a largely under-the-radar manner.
And yet it was Lester who smacked the first major league hit of his career in the third inning Sunday, driving in two runs for the Orioles in their 8-3 victory against the San Francisco Giants.
Lester’s stay with Baltimore may well be short-lived, especially once left-hander Danny Coulombe returns from the bereavement list. But, for all the work Lester has put in during a career grinding through the minor leagues, he deserved this moment in the major league spotlight.
“It’s something that I’ve looked forward to for my entire life, since I was 5 years old playing baseball,” Lester said. “For it to come in a big moment in the game like that, with some guys on, was even better.”
It came in the third inning with two outs and the bases loaded. Baltimore (37-22) had already scored three runs before Lester dropped his bat head to catch a full-count slider from right-hander Anthony DeSclafani. He lashed it into right-center field for two RBIs, and a third run scored on a defensive miscue.
When Lester rounded first base, he said, he “might’ve blacked out a little bit.” When he had a chance to think about it, he described the moment as “surreal.” He thought about all his years in the minor leagues that led to Sunday.
“Somebody that’s never been on a top prospect list or somebody that’s drafted in the 13th round, look around the big leagues, there’s a lot of guys like that,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “His story is a great one. Grew up in a baseball family. Was just grinding in Triple-A.”
That two-out, two-run single gave credence to the idea Ryan O’Hearn mentioned Saturday night after the Orioles were shut out for the second time in five games. This is an offense that can score a lot of runs, and even with center fielder Cedric Mullins on the injured list with a groin strain and infielder Gunnar Henderson missing Sunday because of minor back soreness, the Orioles can prove dangerous.
Lester was in the lineup for the series finale because of Henderson’s ailment, which Hyde said shouldn’t linger. He expects Henderson available in Milwaukee against the Brewers, along with Coulombe — and their returns might spell the end of this short major league stint for Lester.
It’s not his first. He played two games for the Detroit Tigers last season, struck out in three of his five plate appearances, and then returned to finish the year at Triple-A.
Lester was released after the season, then signed as a minor league free agent with the Orioles in December. He had an outside shot at the Opening Day roster, because he’s capable of playing all four corner positions — first, third, left and right — but was assigned to Triple-A Norfolk out of spring training.
Because of all that, was there ever a doubt in Lester’s mind that he might be here, with that first hit on his ledger?
“I’d be lying if I said no,” Lester said. “Obviously, I’m confident in my ability and my chances to get back and get a hit, but it’s a big weight off your shoulders and a big smile on your face when it does come.”
Lester made the most of it with his two-run single, which supported right-hander Tyler Wells. Wells backed up a claim that he could be the ace of Baltimore’s pitching staff by recording a career-high nine strikeouts. Five came via his changeup.
Wells struck out at least seven batters for the fifth straight game, although without the deep counts and swings and misses, he might’ve worked deeper into the game. He was pulled after 5 1/3 innings, once Blake Sabol hit Wells’ 102nd and final pitch for a two-run homer.
“Given the shorter outing by [Kyle] Bradish last night and us just not going super deep into games lately, I would’ve much preferred to kind of go deeper in the game,” Wells said. “But, hey, it is what it is. Overall, I’m happy about it. I’m pleased with the result, and most importantly the team got the win.”
The homer off Wells was barely a dent in the eight runs Baltimore scored on the Giants’ pitching staff, with five earned against DeSclafani and another against right-hander Jakob Junis, when catcher James McCann popped a solo homer in the sixth.
In the postgame handshake line, Lester stood next to Kyle Gibson. They laughed together — one a pitcher with almost 10 years of service time and one a position player with three games.
But they can both say they’ve been here. There’s no taking that hit away from Lester.