Lester flirts with no-hitter, cuts down foe
Over his last two starts, we have witnessed flashes of Roger Clemens and Pedro Martínez and vintage Josh Beckett all rolled into one entertaining package. Jon Lester has been that good.
When one considers the dominance of his last starts, it's hard to figure how he had such laborious outings earlier this season. Neither can Lester.
He followed a six-inning, 12-strikeout performance May 31 in an 8-2 victory over Toronto with an even more impressive 8-1 victory over the Texas Rangers last night at Fenway Park, where he was perfect until Michael Young doubled to the left-center field gap with one out in the seventh.
Lester, who improved to 5-5 and lowered his ERA to 5.09, ended with a two-hitter and the crowd stood up and roared.
While he lamented allowing the hit, "at least it was a well-struck ball," he said.
Lester, throwing 96-97 miles per hour, has struck out 23 over the last two games, after 11 Ks last night. He issued two walks, and Young had both hits.
He had 10 strikeouts through six innings, fanning the top of the Texas order (Ian Kinsler, Young, and Andruw Jones), all swinging, in the fourth. There were six innings of perfection, when he was either overpowering with his fastball or getting hitters to wave at his changeup in the dirt. It was stunning what he could do with the baseball.
This was one of those performances when everyone got out of the way and just watched Lester do his thing.
Perfect game? A second no-hitter (May 19, 2008 vs. Kansas City)? Who wasn't thinking it?
"It just felt good to be able to throw strikes with a lot of different pitches," said Lester, referring to an arsenal that included a fastball, change, cutter, and curve. He was able to throw his change out of the strike zone and had hitters swinging and missing.
Manager Terry Francona said, "I had thoughts of a guy really pitching well. His stuff from the get-go was powerful. He had power without trying to get at them."
One wondered whether the Red Sox' offense, which batted around for four runs in the bottom of the sixth, worked against Lester, who sat quite a while between innings.
All in all, the Sox' offense was merely a complementary aspect of this game.
Oh, David Ortiz thrilled the crowd with a sixth-inning homer that hooked around the Pesky Pole down the right-field line, one of two hits on the night as he continues to show small signs he might be fighting his way out of his season-long hibernation.
"We're looking for positives and his [Ortiz's] energy was positive tonight," said Francona.
"I just have to keep on swinging. If I keep swinging the hits will come," said Ortiz.
The other Sox homer, hit by Mike Lowell in the second inning, was reviewed by the umpiring crew. Lowell's liner hit the back railing over the left-field wall. The ball originally was ruled in play and Lowell had stopped at second base.
That's when Francona darted out of the dugout and the umpires went to the video. With vice president of umpires Mike Port at the game, crew chief Jeff Kellogg took just over a minute to overturn the call. Two recent home run reviews at Fenway hadn't gone the Sox' way.
Texas youngster Derek Holland, a lefty who throws in the mid-90s with good movement, had a good run until the fifth inning.
The Sox scored three runs in the fifth, aided by a Holland balk that advanced Nick Green, who had reached on a fielder's choice, to second base. Dustin Pedroia drove him in with a single to left. After a walk to Jacoby Ellsbury and a well-executed double steal, Jason Bay stroked a single to left, scoring both runners and making it 4-0 Red Sox.
With Lester's dominance that was really all the offense the Sox needed.
In the second, Ortiz had singled to right field, beating the shift, right after he had fouled a ball off his shin, which seemed to cause him great pain. But Ortiz showed a lot of energy as he ran to first on the hit and seemed to provide a spark.
In the sixth he nailed a 2-0 Kris Benson pitch and lined it into the right-field stands for his second homer of the season. Ortiz has enjoyed great support from the hometown fans even through this drought.
That triggered a long inning in which Jason Varitek and Rocco Baldelli worked walks, and with one out, Pedroia knocked in a run with a single to right. With two outs, Kevin Youkilis got into the act with a single to left that was botched by Brandon Boggs, allowing both runners to score.
When Lester took the mound in the seventh after the long inning, he threw a first-pitch strike to Kinsler and retired him on a liner to Pedroia at second. But Young, a .335 hitter who had flied out and struck out swinging, launched a legitimate double to the gap. Lester seemed to momentarily lose his composure when he walked Jones, but he quickly got the next two outs, including a called third strike to Marlon Byrd.
"I lost a little bit of interest at that point, but I just had to get back on the horse," explained Lester, who allowed his only run in the ninth on Jones's sacrifice fly.
While in his last start his pitch count grew to 115 after six, last night Lester was amazingly efficient. He ended the game with a fly ball by Nelson Cruz on his 107th pitch.
What a performance.