Soon after the Red Sox returned from late August's successful interleague road trip, David Ross was talking about how it was during that swing through San Francisco and Los Angeles that he began to realize how large a man Jon Lester really is. To see 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds stand atop the mound is one thing, but to see him in the on-deck circle is apparently another, and so it was as the left-hander was readying to bat that Ross made conscious note of the pitcher's physical presence.
From this view, that moment of realization came early Friday evening. In a far-too-crowded Red Sox clubhouse there wasn't much a lot of room between the cameras, and the reporters, and the coaches, and the club staffers -- but some 45 minutes after pitching Boston to a 12-2 win over the Rays in the first game of the American League Division Series, Lester walked through the crowd wearing a focused visage with a blue jacket. And looking larger-than-life.
In actuality he was no bigger than he was the dozens of times he's made that same walk this season, or the hundreds of times he's made it over the course of his career. And there were enough good-sized people in the room, between the press and the players, that he shouldn't have stood out like a giant among men. But in this moment, he did.
In this moment, and for most of the three and a half hours before it, he had a presence. He looked like a leader. He seemed eager. He appeared to be in command. He had an air of confidence, and purpose, and strength about him as he strode tall through the clubhouse.
And the way he walked through the clubhouse Friday evening is exactly the same way he pitched on Friday afternoon.
The opportunity to start the opener of a playoff series is far more a privilege for a starting pitcher than it is a declaration that he's truly an ace, but when given the opportunity to forge a path for the Red Sox in their series against the Rays, Lester delivered a performance befitting a pitcher who deserves such a title.
He surrendered a couple of solo homers early, yes, but when he took the mound for the eighth inning -- something he'd never done in a playoff game -- those remained the only runs he'd yielded, and they accounted for two of the three hits he'd allowed, with one walk.
He came out all sorts of amped for his first playoff start in four years, reaching back to hit 97 mph on the first batter he faced, and coaxing a swing-and-miss with seven of his first 21 pitches. But Lester's most impressive and ace-like work really came over the middle innings, by when his velocity had dropped off by a few miles per hour -- but at which point he gave the Sox exactly what they needed.
Thanks to Wil Myers' misplay and Boston's season-long ability to bust through an opened door, his teammates had turned a 2-0 deficit into a 5-2 lead between the lefty's fourth and fifth innings of work. In other words, they put themselves in a position where it was then up to their pitcher to make sure Game 1 was secured. A position where the series lead was in their grasp. And Lester took his left hand and squeezed it by the throat.
His first frame with the lead went ground out, fly out, strikeout, requiring only 11 pitches. His next, with the score now 8-2, but with Tampa's three best hitters due up, went fly out, fly out, ground out. He needed only eight pitches for that one. Then the inning after that went ground out, fly out, strikeout -- in only 14 pitches.
That's nine up, nine down. That's three quick innings, totaling just 33 pitches (23 of them strikes). That's how a fourth-inning lead becomes an eighth-inning stranglehold. That's precisely what you want from your starting pitcher in those circumstances.
That's what makes a great pitcher an ace.
"Whether it's a strikeout or outs, regardless of how you get them, the ability to keep a game under control is paramount by a starter," manager John Farrell said. "What was probably as big an inning was after we scored the five runs, to come out and put up a zero. That's the most important thing in the game, is to keep up the momentum and put up a zero, and we were able to come back with three more runs in that inning."
"I could tell he was excited," said Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who caught each of Lester's seven strikeouts. "This was his game. He's such a big-game pitcher, and I wouldn't want anybody else on the mound in that situation."
The guy the Rays want on the mound more than anybody else will throw for Tampa on Saturday, when David Price gets the ball in Game 2, and that only underscores how important it was for Lester to deliver the way he did Friday. The Sox needed that one, as now in a worst-case scenario they go to Florida with the series tied at 1, and with Clay Buchholz waiting to pitch Game 3.
The Sox have plenty of confidence in Buchholz, too, and there was even some debate publicly -- if not privately -- about whether it should be he who opened the series. Lester ultimately won the opportunity on the strength of his excellent second half, and not only did he validate that decision on Friday, he reaffirmed that he is the leader of this staff.
In the past month he's outdueled Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer, he's won the East division clincher, and now he's won a playoff game that lowers his career postseason ERA to 2.54. In the biggest games, he tends to be big.
He stands above the crowd, be it on the mound, in the clubhouse -- or, who knows if he keeps pitching like this, maybe even atop a duck boat.
The author is solely responsible for the content.