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Lester realized that change can be good

Shortstop Marco Scutaro (neck) returned to the Red Sox’ lineup last night and chipped in with two hits and several sterling defensive plays. Shortstop Marco Scutaro (neck) returned to the Red Sox’ lineup last night and chipped in with two hits and several sterling defensive plays. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / June 17, 2010

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The Arizona Diamondbacks are not a particularly good team. But they are one of the better hitting teams in the National League, among the leaders in runs, home runs, and walks.

Jon Lester figured that out quickly last night. After one trip through the order, he had given up two runs and several loud hits, including a home run by Justin Upton that appeared headed for Kenmore Square as it left the park.

“He was kind of fighting himself a little bit,’’ Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

Some young pitchers react to adversity by trying to throw the ball harder. But Lester took a different tact in his first career start against Arizona. He threw 12 changeups over his final four innings and allowed only one hit. The adjustment allowed him to complete seven innings in a game the Sox won, 6-2.

“We had to mix in something soft tonight,’’ Lester said. “They’re a very good fastball-hitting team. Guys with a lot of power, and you have to mix something soft in there to get them off that fastball. I was able to do that.’’

Lester threw nine of his 14 offspeed pitches for strikes with three of the pitches serving to get outs.

The changeup saved Lester in the fourth inning. He loaded the bases with one out, walking Chris Young before Miguel Montero singled and Upton walked. But Rusty Ryal struck out swinging at a changeup before Lester used another change to get Chris Snyder to pop to center field.

“When you’re able to slow them down just enough to get away with that [fastball] down the middle, you can pop them up,’’ Lester said. “Had to bear down and make a couple of pitches. I got myself into the jam and had to get myself out of it.’’

Said Francona: “That’s a big part of the game. That was huge. He made pitches; he just didn’t repeat them all night long. But he made them when he needed to.’’

Lester relies heavily on his fastball and curveball and like many pitchers has needed time to refine his changeup. Only in the last year has he gained a good feel for it.

“It’s tenfold better,’’ he said. “I have more confidence, able to throw it in different counts. Able to throw it ahead in the count, which is the biggest thing. It’s becoming an out pitch and becoming something that’s comfortable.

“You have to change speeds. As long as I have the trust to throw it, good things will happen.’’

Lester has learned a lot about the pitch, and when to use it, by watching teammate Clay Buchholz. In turn, Buchholz has picked up pointers about his cutter and sinker from Lester.

“It’s fun when that happens,’’ Buchholz said. “We’re always talking about certain things like that.’’

Lester (8-2) allowed two runs on four hits but walked three and hit two. While happy with the result, he was a bit annoyed with the process.

“It’s night and day from inning to inning to batter to batter sometimes. I needed to make a couple of adjustments during the game and I was able to do that,’’ he said.

Francona has come to expect it.

“His command wasn’t what we’ve seen,’’ the manager said. “A couple of innings, to start the inning, he had trouble, Ball one, ball two, ball three. Saying that, he pitches seven innings, gives up two [runs]. He’s a good pitcher. He understands what’s going on.’’

Lester is 8-0 with a 2.01 ERA in his last 11 starts. The Red Sox are 9-2 in those games.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com.

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