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Change in plan produces familiar results for Lester in big win for Sox

Posted by David D'Onofrio  July 24, 2013 07:29 AM

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It's said that a pitcher must throw the ball with conviction in order to succeed. That's part of the reason Clay Buchholz may be justified in waiting until he's fully comfortable to take the mound again. That's part of the reason Junichi Tazawa looked untouchable Tuesday night, after Koji Uehara offered some advice and encouragement to help the mentally weary reliever. That's part of the reason, more generally, there needs to be some degree of simpatico between pitcher and catcher when deciding what to throw.

And that's part of the reason Red Sox fans should hope the results of Tuesday's terrific performance against Tampa Bay will convince Jon Lester of the need to continue changing his approach to attacking hitters.

The lefty had become too predictable in terms of pitch selection, counting on his bread-and-butter cutter for more than 25 percent of his tosses over the past two seasons, and turning to it religiously whenever a big spot arose -- with men in scoring position or with two strikes, for instance -- so hitters began looking for it. When they did, they found a pitch that lacked some of the life it used to have, according to Manager John Farrell, and thus they punished him in crucial moments.

Tuesday night, Lester got away from that pattern. He threw only five cutters in the course of 6.1 innings, which marked his fewest in any game since August 2010, and which meant there was more variety among his arsenal. Tuesday's 17 curveballs were only two fewer than he'd featured in his previous three starts combined, and his changeup was so effective that 12 of 13 were strikes. Those two pitches accounted for three of his season-high eight strikeouts.

He got the others courtesy of fastballs that came with some extra fuel after a nine-day layoff, and he avoided relying on the cutter as a put-away pitch. Perhaps as a result, the Rays went just 1-for-12 after letting Lester get to two strikes in the count.

"He's probably changed up his pitch distribution a little bit," Manager John Farrell said, "used his changeup a little more, his cutter earlier in the count rather than later."

"I think the league started to see that two strikes the cutter's a great pitch for him. We're trying to pick and choose times to do that," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "The more he uses it earlier in the count, it gets the hitter off balance. The league is starting to change and adjust to him, so in turn he's got to adjust to them."

We need to see more before we really know if he has, though. As encouraging and intelligent as the approach taken by Lester and Saltalamacchia was Tuesday, it should be noted that three of the four games this season in which he's been least reliant on the cutter have come against the Rays. It could merely have been a product of the matchup.

There was also Lester's own denial of the notion that he's become predictable. "I don't think so," he said. "Andy Pettitte has done it for 19 years. I'm not going to shy away from my strength."

But then Lester acknowledged the understanding that being smart about picking his spots with the cutter doesn't mean he'd be shying away from the pitch -- but rather that he'd be giving his self-described strength a chance to be even stronger. "You've got to be able to throw all four or five pitches and mix them up. I can't just throw fastball-cutter. ...

"I think if you talk to anybody that's going to face me, that's always in the back of their mind as far as the pitch I'm going to try and get you out with," Lester continued. "If you're able to maybe show it a little earlier, and show some pitches that you normally don't throw later in the count, you get some mis-hits or some swing-and-misses. It's a game of adjustments. You always have to constantly make adjustments, and we're doing it right now."

It'll have to continue, as no longer does Lester appear the type of hurler who can attack and overwhelm hitters with pure stuff. He needs to execute a plan, then he needs to execute pitches -- and having shown what he's capable of when he can do both, Tuesday suggests he may be nearing a return to what the Red Sox expect him to be. And what they'll need him to be if they are to get where they want to go.

"I said it three or four months ago: we're going to go to the World Series and win it with him," Saltalamacchia said. "Can't do it without him."

Now that's conviction.

BEYOND THE BOX SCORE
Red Sox 6, Rays 2
Hitters
12-for-36, BB, 4 K, 4 2B, 3 SB
Shane Victorino, CF 1-for-5, R, 2B, SB: He reached only once in five trips, but he fulfilled his leadoff duties by seeing a whopping 29 pitches, stealing home at the front end of a double steal, and knocking a double.
Daniel Nava, RF 1-for-4, R, 2B: Nava has walked only twice this month, and only three times since June 18, but he's hit in 11 of his last 13 games to keep his OBP at .372 for the season.
Dustin Pedroia, 2B 0-for-2, HBP, SB, RBI: Without getting a hit, the $100 million man still made an impact. His sacrifice fly plated the eventual game-winning run, while his 14th steal led directly to another run. The money will be well spent.
David Ortiz, DH 2-for-4: Since dipping below .300 on June 16, he's hit .367 with an OPS pushing 1.100. He's got 13 multi-hit games over that span, and has reached base in 57 of 127 (.449) plate appearances. More money well spent.
Mike Napoli, 1B 2-for-4, 2 R, 2B: It's probably worth pointing out, since he's now got three extra-base hits since getting back to action: Napoli's career second-half OPS is .912, compared with .823 in the first, so this could signal the start of a breakout.
Mike Carp, LF 1-for-3, RBI: Carp knocked in the Sox’ first run with a single, and pushed his OPS back up to an even 1.000 for the season. Didn’t show great ups on leaping bid for Bengie Molina’s seventh inning double, then got pulled for Jonny Gomes. Yes; Jonny Gomes was a defensive replacement.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C 2-for-3, 2B, BB, K: Saltalamacchia entered just 1-for his last-20, but exited in a tie with Pedroia and Napoli for the team lead in doubles (with 25). The Sox will take that, even if his homers remain well behind last year’s pace.
Stephen Drew, SS 1-for-4, R, RBI, K, SB: The maligned shortstop was still without a hit since returning from the DL when he stepped in during an eighth-inning rally and delivered Napoli with a single to right. He also scored on Iglesias' two-RBI single, never slowing around third.
Jose Iglesias, 3B 1-for-4, 2 RBI: Somehow putting a new twist on his patented specialty, Iglesias used his team-leading 23rd infield hit to score two runs, with Drew racing home from second when the ball deflected off two gloves and died just beyond the deep lip behind third base.
Pitchers
9 IP, 2 ER, 7 H, 2 2B, 2 HR, 0 BB, 13 K
Jon Lester, SP 6.1 IP, 7H, 2ER, 0BB, 8K: He was exactly what the Sox needed Tuesday, which has to help confidence when coupled with his other recent results. Three of his four July starts have technically counted as "quality," and his ERA therein is 4.01.
Matt Thornton, RP 0.1 IP: When Lester put the tying run aboard in the top of the seventh, and the right-handed hitting Sean Rodriguez due, John Farrell made the curious choice to go to the left-handed Thornton. He made the manager look smart, inducing a bouncer to third and leaving Bengie Molina at second.
Junichi Tazawa, RP 1.2 IP, 3K: After facing only seven hitters over the previous 10 days, he was firing his fastball at an average of 95.53 mph, according to Brooksbaseball.net. That's a gain of 3 mph from where he was over the weekend, and was his second speediest since April.
Koji Uehara, RP 1 IP, 2K: It wasn't a save situation because Boston rallied in the eighth to add padding, but he was perfect nevertheless, efficiently throwing only 11 pitches even with the two strikeouts.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Dave D'Onofrio is a sports journalist who focuses on the Red Sox and Patriots, and also writes Boston.com's "Off The Field" blog about what Boston's sportsmen do away from the More »

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