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Bob Ryan

Rookie mistakes? Not likely

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / July 8, 2006
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CHICAGO -- He's in the rotation. It was his turn to pitch.

Simple as that, right?

Well, no. This was a certifiable Big Game. This was a Test. The Chicago White Sox are the reigning world champions, and no matter what it says in the standings, they have more to offer than they did last season. The papers were full of stuff concerning last year's ALDS sweep of the Red Sox and there was a capacity crowd of 39,355 on hand at U.S. Cellular Field to see their darlings impose their will on this 22-year-old kid lefty.

Hah.

Jon Lester did what he had to do. He held the White Sox to six singles and a pair of runs in six innings of work. It was, yes a Quality Start. It was Phase 1 of the preferred Terry Francona pitching formula. You get six innings from your starter. You get a seventh inning from your new, increasingly reliable seventh-inning specialist, Manny Delcarmen. You get a 1-2-3 eighth inning from Mike Timlin. The only wrinkle was that last night Francona didn't need Jonathan Papelbon to close because home runs by Mike Lowell and Coco Crisp in the ninth made it a 7-2 game, which the skipper felt was a safe enough lead to entrust to Julian Tavarez.

But it all starts with the starter, and however circuitous the routes he has chosen to take to get where he's gone, the fact is Jon Lester has found a way to hand leads over to Whomever when he leaves the mound.

``That's because he seems to know how to minimize damage," said Gabe Kapler. ``He doesn't let things get out of hand where another young pitcher might by adding that one walk or base hit that sends the inning out of control."

He seems to deal in adventure, this kid. There always seems to be an element of a high-wire act, but at the same time he doesn't let situations get out of hand.

There is much to like.

Jon Lester is not economical with his pitches, at least not yet. In six starts, none of which have lasted more than six innings (which, of course, is OK by contemporary standards), he has thrown 102, 93, 107, 116, 99, and 95 pitches for a David Cone-like average of 102 per. Last night he was curiously wild, as in pitches that had some people skipping (most notably Jermaine Dye), and other pitches that would have required a surfboard to make contact. In the first four innings, the White Sox had eight base runners. But only two of them scored, and both were produced by Dye sacrifice flies (one drawing an embarrassing throw from Coco Crisp), so the young man was apparently doing something right.

One thing he won't do is give in. It seems he was uncomfortable on the mound in the beginning of the game, but that never caused him to deviate from his game plan. ``I agree that he was missing by a lot for a while there," said Francona. ``But he never got desperate and started throwing the ball down the middle."

He was in situations that could have escalated into calamities. Two walks sandwiched around a Jim Thome shift-beating poke to left loaded the bases in the first with one out, but the White Sox only came away with one run on the first Dye sacrifice fly. Three straight singles loaded them again in the third, this time with none out. Consider those possibilities. But again he escaped with minimal damage on a second Dye fly to center. When that ball left the bat, there didn't appear to be much chance of it producing a run, but Alex Cintron, the runner on third, never hesitated, and soon we all found out why, as Crisp first failed to back up and take the easy fly with forward momentum, then took a skip before releasing the ball and finally threw a flare that landed 10 feet up the third base line. File that one away.

But that's all the White Sox could muster, and by the fourth inning they were facing a different Jon Lester. His difficulties with the mound had been settled and he was now throwing more first-pitch strikes and getting more easy outs. The champs only managed one more base runner against Lester (a walk to Chris Widger), as he finished his night's work by retiring the last seven men he faced.

All in all, it was a very professional performance by a rookie. He is now 4-0, and among his conquests are the Mets, the best team the National League has to offer, and the White sox, the best team (it says here) the American League has to offer.

``He's shown very good poise for a young pitcher," said Francona. ``You need stuff to back it up, of course, or else it doesn't matter. He just kept his composure and made good pitches."

``Was I excited? Yes and no," Lester said. ``Obviously, with ESPN here and the White Sox as an opponent, it was important. But I try to get up for all the games. I didn't have any extra butterflies, or anything like that."

The fact is it was the first game of a Big Series. It was a new professional experience. And Jon Lester made it look like no big deal. He looks like a keeper to me.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is ryan@globe.com.

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