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Red Sox 3, Rays 0

Lester helps Sox zero in on the Rays

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 9, 2008
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His face, underneath its cool exterior, broke enough for a muted celebration. Standing by the dugout railing, watching the other Jon finish up what he had started, Jon Lester accepted momentary congratulations, then closed again.

Lester, of course, is not one for much outward emotion. Not one for self-promotion or major expressions of excitement or joy. Unlike, say, Jonathan Papelbon, who had just closed out another stellar performance from his starter.

But, no matter how calm Lester is, there is one undeniable fact. He can dominate.

And he did last night. Though it wasn't quite his no-hitter or his nine-inning shutout in Yankee Stadium, it was a stellar performance in a game the Sox needed to have. Because there's not much better than keeping a down team down. And coming into this se ries in Fenway Park, that's exactly where the Rays seemed to be, a theme that continued with last night's 3-0 loss to Lester.

"It was important, I think a little bit more important than a normal start," Lester said. "Obviously they're ahead of us right now, and we're trying to get back in first place. It was a good atmosphere tonight in the ballpark. It almost felt like we're in the playoffs."

That's where they're headed, if this was any indication. No matter that the Rays had lost all six games in Boston this season, and that they had come into Fenway Park carting a three-game losing streak, they still hold the top spot in the division.

That hold is now in jeopardy.

With the Sox taking the first game of the series, Tampa Bay's lead in the American League East is down to a half-game - a single game in the loss column. For that, the Sox can thank Lester, who outdueled Edwin Jackson with 119 scintillating pitches that left the Rays shut out and hurting.

"I thought all his stuff was good," said manager Terry Francona. "Two-seamer. Had some explosion on his fastball. Cutter. Again, when you start throwing 94, 95 with some movement on both sides, then you throw a breaking ball, give you a little different look. He's got a lot of ways to expand the plate."

He looked strong, as he has all year. He looked ready. And the Rays didn't look to have much of a chance. Over 7 2/3 innings, Lester allowed just six hits - two of which came in the eighth and led to his departure - and three walks. (And one of those hits, off the bat of Jason Bartlett, easily could have been ruled an error on Dustin Pedroia.) He struck out nine and watched just two runners get as far as third base, as he improved his record at Fenway Park to 9-1 with a 2.66 ERA.

"He's just gotten better," Jason Varitek said. "He is strong, but he's gotten better. Better understanding of himself, most importantly, and then you just add that to his development. He's a lot stronger than he was this time last year. That's due to what the man had to battle through."

"I think more consistent with my mechanics, I think that's making me stronger," said Lester. "I don't have to use as much energy, wasted energy, as before. Now it just seems more efficient.

"I'm not wasting energy on bad thoughts or anything like that."

It didn't hurt that the Sox came out swinging. By the time Lester took the mound in the second inning, the Sox had scored three runs. Mark Kotsay took a walk to open for Boston, then David Ortiz rocketed a double off the Wall, scoring Kotsay. Kevin Youkilis singled up the middle, bringing Ortiz around to score, but the first baseman was cut down trying to move to second on the throw.

That left the bases empty for Jason Bay, who answered with his sixth home run for Boston, hitting the ball off the light tower by the flagpole in center field.

Even luck was with Lester. When Ben Zobrist smashed a ball with two outs in the eighth inning, it hit maybe 6 inches from the top of the Wall, winding up a single. That was followed by a double to right by Carlos Pena that bounced into the stands, keeping the runner at third.

So did Lester want to stay out there, to face the next hitter, Rocco Baldelli?

"I wanted Zobrist," he said. "I wanted Pena. I had my opportunity."

He got neither. That was it for Lester, who received an extended standing ovation as he walked off the field, tipping his cap to the raucous crowd of 37,662.

Working Baldelli mostly on the inside of the plate, Papelbon rifled a 97-mile-per-hour fastball past a whipsaw swing and into the grasp of Varitek. Cue the strikeout, and it was nearly over for the Rays. For one night, at least.

Tonight is a chance for the Sox to capture first place, a chance to put their foot down at Fenway again. October, clearly, looks closer and closer.

"We're just playing consistent baseball right now," Lester said. "We're going out and we're not letting up. Keep pushing the throttle, and keep going forward."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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