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Sticking with change, Lester puts Red Sox back in first

Posted by David D'Onofrio  July 29, 2013 12:19 AM

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Unable to arrange for it on his first three visits to town this season, Joe Maddon was hoping he'd get a chance to see one sight in particular when he makes this year's final trip to Boston on Monday.

Derek, of course, is Derek Jeter -- who returned from the disabled list to help the Yankees knock off Maddon's Rays in New York. And who helped ensure that a most encouraging win by the Red Sox would allow them to regain first place in the American League East, and thus the coveted top slot in the standings that'll adorn Fenway Park's left-field wall when Tampa Bay arrives for a make-up game Monday night.

It was encouraging for a variety of reasons, including David Ortiz hitting his 20th homer among four hits, Mike Napoli's two doubles continuing the rediscovery his extra-base power, and a couple of hits for both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jacoby Ellsbury, both of whom had been slumping a bit recently. It's encouraging, too, that the Sox were able to win a series at Baltimore, given the problems the Orioles has presented them over the past year and a half.

Without question, though, the most encouraging aspect of Boston's 5-0 win was the performance of Jon Lester, whose left hand holds so many of the team's hopes for this season -- and who is beginning to look capable of carrying that burden again.

After a brutal June, during which his earned run average was 7.62, Lester delivered a 3.13 ERA over his five outings in July (despite that one of them was a five-run, five-inning failure in Seattle), and his final two appearances of the month not only seemed to indicate that the Sox have identified the problem with his approach, but that the pitcher has effectively executed the plan to correct it.

Last week against the Rays, Lester and Saltalamacchia made a concerted effort to be less reliant on the lefty's go-to cutter. That strategy yielded terrific results, though at the time we wondered if the means of attack was aimed specifically for Tampa, or if it reflected a true departure from Lester's comfort zone.

We might've received our answer on Sunday. Six weeks after throwing cutters on 31 of 106 pitches against Baltimore (29.2 percent), Lester used only seven cutters in 99 tosses to the Orioles this time (7.1 percent), and for a second consecutive start was primarily a fastball/changeup pitcher. In fact, according to the data at BrooksBaseball.net, Lester threw changeups on 21.02 percent of his pitches in July, his highest percentage for any month since he reached the big leagues. On top of that, he threw his cutter on less than 20 percent of his pitches for the second straight month, and just the third month since May of 2010.

That the pitch was employed with similar frequency in June and July, though the results were so much better the second time around, suggests he's becoming more comfortable with pitching this way.

"I think he's getting a better understanding of the overall pitch mix, how to be most effective," Manager John Farrell told reporters, according to the Globe. "His changeup continues to be a good weapon for him. He was efficient once again today."

The difference shows most prominently in the bigger moments -- when Lester formerly, and naturally, went to his money-maker. Before Sunday's start, his numbers were the worst of his career with two strikes, with two outs, with runners in scoring position in general, and with runners in scoring position and two outs.

Yet the Orioles were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position, after the Rays were 0-for-5 last week. Sunday he used his fastball to get the out in the first five of those situations, then went to the change-up for the sixth -- and induced a double-play ball. Instead of sitting on the cutter, and waiting on a pitch that had lost some life of late, hitters don't know what's coming. And by commanding the rest of his weaponry, Lester is again pitching at the level the Red Sox expect of him. And that's a high one.

"Jon Lester pitching to the best of his capabilities is going to be one of the best pitchers in the league," Farrell told reporters in Baltimore. "He's shown it the last couple times out."

And so even if Maddon can't see everything he'd like while in Boston this time, he may at least be happy that he won't have to see Lester, either.

BEYOND THE BOX SCORE
Red Sox 5, Orioles 0
Hitters
10-for-33, 6 BB, 4 K, 3 2B, HR
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF 2-for-5, R: The leadoff man is getting back on track collecting five hits in Baltimore. How important is that? The Sox are 37-13 when he scores a run, compared with 26-30 when he fails to score or doesn't play.
Shane Victorino, RF 0-for-3, R, 2 BB: Entering Sunday, he'd walked only twice since June 14. He matched that number in the rubber match, taking two free passes in a game for the first time since mid-May.
Dustin Pedroia, 2B 0-for-4, BB: The skid is now at 2-for-31 to bring his average (.297) below .300 for the first time since May 7, and he made a throwing error, to boot. But he made good contact throughout the afternoon. That and some home cookin' could signal a return to form.
David Ortiz, DH 4-for-4, HR, 2 R, 2 RBI: In the course of becoming the first Sox with 20 homers this season, he also moved up to second in the AL in batting. Only Miguel Cabrera's .360 -- good luck catching that -- is better than Papi's .329.
Mike Napoli, 1B 2-for-4, R, RBI, 2 2B, K: He's now had multiple extra-base hits in three of his last seven games, and Monday he'll again face David Price -- who he touched for a double and homer last week.
Mike Carp, LF 0-for-2, BB, K: Carp has now reached base in 10 of his 11 starts since June 4, including the past six. And how about the respect for Jonny Gomes? Baltimore intentionally walked him as a pinch hitter.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C 2-for-4, 2 RBI, 2B: After his 26th double, delivered a huge two-run single that allowed Farrell to close with Pedro Beato instead of Koji Uehara. Every bullet saved might matter, so expanding the lead from three to five was enormous.
Stephen Drew, SS 0-for-3, BB 2 K: Would've been nice to see him build more on Saturday night's two-tater tilt, but with a walk and a hard-luck lineout, it wasn't a total loss.
Jose Iglesias, 3B 0-for-4: Saw only 11 pitches en route to his seventh 0-for in the past 11 games. If comfortably getting deep in counts is a sign of confidence, Iglesias' might be shaken.
Pitchers
9 IP, 5 H, 2 BB, 9 K
Jon Lester, SP 7 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 8 K: Matched his season high by whiffing eight for the second straight start. Also struck out eight in May, needing 124 pitches to do it; has done it with 96 and 99 over the past week.
Matt Thornton, RP 1 IP, H, K: The lefty delivered a nice inning, entering to face the top of the order and getting a double play after yielding an infield single. Then he struck out the suddenly human Chris Davis.
Pedro Beato, RP 1 IP: All but one inning has been thrown under low-leverage circumstances, though he continues to pound the strike zone with 70 percent of his pitches, and owns a 1.42 ERA as a result.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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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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