, Newburyport, MA

October 5, 2013

Vintage Lester had 'bite-your-head-off' mentality

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — BOSTON — It feels like a million moons ago, but do you remember when Jon Lester threw shutdown sixth and seventh innings in Game 1 of the 2008 ALDS against the Angels after Jason Bay homered in the top of the sixth to hand the lefty and Boston a 2-1 lead?

If you don’t remember, that’s OK. After all, Lester recently said that 4-1 Boston victory happened so long ago he can’t remember much about it except for Bay’s blast.

But for me — a man who loves the art of pitching more than anything else in baseball — I didn’t remember how the Red Sox took the lead in ‘08 until Lester mentioned it. The one thing I did recall was the way Lester held the lead in the late innings.

That was the Lester who was missing last year when he struggled to a career-worst 4.82 ERA. The southpaw coughed up too many leads in ‘12 as the opposition batted .283 when he was ahead in games.

But vintage Lester finally has returned and he led the Red Sox 12-2 over Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the ALDS here at Fenway Park yesterday. Lester went 7.2 innings, allowing just two runs, both earned, on three hits (two solo homers) and three walks while striking out seven.

The Red Sox took a 1-0 best-of-five series lead. The two rivals meet for Game 2 at Fenway today at 5:37 p.m.

This is the way Lester must pitch for Boston to make a legitimate run at a World Series title. As John Lackey, who pitches today said, “one run feels like three in the postseason.”

Lackey is correct. Runs are so difficult to come by because the postseason is centered on pitching and defense. And so when your team gives you a lead like the Red Sox gave Lester yesterday, you must hold it. Kudos to Lester for doing just that.

“He’s a guy who before the game you don’t mess with him, you don’t talk to him, you stay out of his way,” Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks said about Lester. “He’s a bulldog. He’ll bite your head off. He’s so focused and that’s awesome because I feel like it rubs off on everybody in the clubhouse.”

Same as in 2008, Lester fell behind early, but when his team handed him a 5-2 lead (obviously more of a cushion than ‘08) with five runs in the bottom of the fourth, he was able to bear down and hold the opposition scoreless the rest of the way. It all began with a huge shutdown top of the fifth inning.

Middlebrooks, who Boston drafted in 2007, watched the Red Sox’ playoff runs in 2007, ‘08 and ‘09 on the television. He remembers Lester and Lackey, then with the Angels, opposing each other in Game 1 of the ALDS in ‘08 and ‘09 when Boston played in LA. He remembers Lester bearing down after Bay’s homer.

“When you have an inning or two that are big innings for you that change momentum, for him to go out and shut them down, it keeps that momentum for us going into the last couple of innings,” Middlebrooks said. “It’s huge, especially for our bullpen.”

After Lester’s shutdown fifth inning, Boston scored three more times in the bottom half to that frame for a 8-1 lead.

Lester, a cancer survivor, always has been a grinder. He certainly is talent but he doesn’t have the Left Arm of Gold that Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw possess. Several times as a youngster, Lester would make a couple mistakes but would keep grinding to earn a win. Often, he’d leave a game after five innings because of a high pitch count, but that was OK because he had put on his bulldog face and thrown five scoreless innings or kept his team in it.

That’s the exact reason he boasted a .771 winning percent in his first 35 major league decisions and posted a .724 winning percentage in his first 58 career decisions.

Lester struck out the first four batters he faced yesterday. Sean Rodriguez (second inning solo homer) and Ben Zobrist (fourth inning solo homer) capitalized on possibly Lester’s only two bad pitches through four innings.

“My first two at-bats, he just beat me to the spot,” Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria said. “He didn’t throw any balls over the middle of the plate. Regardless of whether you’re seeing it well or not, good pitching is going to beat good hitting. If he puts it there, he’s going to beat you.”

Longoria thought Lester’s velocity decreased but his pitch execution got much better as the game progressed.

“He was on the corners,” Longoria said. “He was getting ahead. Pitch count was down. He made pitches.”

Now, it’s Lackey’s turn to return to his playoff vintage form. Yes, the task of having to face 2012 AL Cy Young winner David Price is quite tall. But don’t forget that Lackey was the winner in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie and pitched 7.1 scoreless innings against Boston to win Game 1 of the 2009 ALDS.

“I’ve been around Jonny Lester a little bit longer than Lack but I’ve obviously known of Lack a long time, too — I watched him pitch growing up,” Red Sox Game 3 starter Clay Buchholz said. “That’s why there are here. That’s why they are who they are. They thrive off that big game and that situation. I wouldn’t rather have any other two guys starting for us.”

Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB