Fine and dandy
Lester prevails in his return and Sox offense stays on roll
CLEVELAND -- Facing any batter with the bases loaded, even one as talented as Grady Sizemore, doesn't even register among the most difficult moments of the past year for Jon Lester. But, since Lester wants the focus back on baseball and away from cancer, last night was marked most indelibly by Lester's ability to extricate himself from a bases-loaded situation.
Not only did the lefthander turn in a remarkable start in his return to the major leagues, he was also able to grab his first win of the season and the eighth of his career, his first in exactly 11 months. He threw 96 pitches and struck out six over six innings, with two runs allowed on five hits and three walks in a 6-2 triumph over one of the best teams the American League has to offer. It was not an insignificant test for him -- and for teammates.
Because with the tremendous run totals being generated by the Yankees, the Red Sox' offensive renaissance (and good starting pitching) has offered a way out of their recent slide, as demonstrated last night in front of 32,439 at Jacobs Field. Four first-inning runs never hurt.
"I admit, I was nervous for him," catcher Jason Varitek said of the 23-year-old taking the hill. And that was before the game. Before the fourth inning, when with the bases loaded Lester blew a third-strike, 93-mile-per-hour fastball past Sizemore, who had taken Lester deep one inning earlier.
After getting through the first two innings unscathed, Lester allowed a one-out single to center by Josh Barfield. Up walked Sizemore. After traveling 383 feet, Lester's pitch landed in the right-field seats. But that two-run home run, which narrowed the gap to 5-2, couldn't bring the Indians close enough. Lester made sure it stayed that way, getting Sizemore swinging to get out of the one-out, bases-loaded jam in the fourth.
Before Lester had emerged from the dugout for his first warm-up tosses, the Sox already had scored four runs for him.
"That first pitch, I think after that it settled down and I started to calm down a little bit," Lester said. "Offense did an unbelievable job in the first inning. That eases any pitcher's mind, getting four in the first. Just makes it a little easier to go out and throw strikes and attack hitters."
Starting with a single by Coco Crisp -- who had four hits for his third straight game with at least three hits -- the Sox plated each of their first four batters. Dustin Pedroia followed Crisp with a single, then Kevin Youkilis walked to load the bases. Former Indian Manny Ramírez doubled home two runs, and a single from J.D. Drew and double-play ball from Mike Lowell scored two more.
When the Sox snapped their three-game losing streak Friday night with a 10-run outburst against the White Sox, it started an offensive uprising that has coincided with a similar trend by the Yankees. Those 10 runs were followed by 11 Saturday, eight Sunday, and another six last night. And three of those games were without the injured David Ortiz.
"All we've got to do is put David on the bench and we start killing the ball. Hopefully his shoulder hurts for about six more days and we should have a great road trip," Lowell said jokingly, before turning serious. "But it starts from the top. Lugo got hot. Coco's been on fire. When those guys get hot, it puts the guys in the middle of the lineup in real good positions to do some damage."
Crisp scored three runs, backing up his third baseman's contention. After scoring the Sox' first run, Crisp doubled and scored in the second (Youkilis single) and in the ninth (infield single, throwing error by third baseman Casey Blake, passed ball, Pedroia single).
In the end, though, the questions only related to Lester. About how much it helped, how much it calmed him to take the field with a four-run lead. They were about him and about his comeback and about how well he pitched. (Varitek contended Lester isn't much different than he was last August, just with a slightly better feel for his pitches.) About how it was to watch him -- finally -- back on the mound.
"Impressed. Proud. Lot of adjectives," manager Terry Francona said. "It was supposed to be his night. Watching those guys -- I'm sure they want to win the game -- but I think it was fitting that he won the game."
For teammates, the excitement was palpable. Both in the dugout and in the stands. They saw the signs, felt the emotion.
So, with his veteran catcher feeling both the nerves and the intensity of the situation, how did that translate to the seemingly implacable starter? Did Lester appear nervous at all?
"He actually didn't," Varitek said. "Not really. He seemed to maintain his aggressiveness. I think that's big. I think that's been his mentality all along. He didn't want to be a token pitcher here. He wants to pitch here."