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They’ve leaned on Lester

Minus him, team would be hurting

Jon Lester worked a perfect sixth inning for the American League Tuesday night, his first appearance in the All-Star Game. Jon Lester worked a perfect sixth inning for the American League Tuesday night, his first appearance in the All-Star Game. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / July 15, 2010

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — It took just one word for Jon Lester to answer the question, and it left no doubt as to his feelings. Asked if he had felt any added responsibility, any added pressure to perform, with Josh Beckett on the disabled list since May 19, the Red Sox lefthander said simply, “No.’’

The single-minded focus is evident, the drive to be at the top of his game — at the top of the game — clear in just about everything he does. And it has come to fruition, with Lester adding his first All-Star Game to his résumé on Tuesday, pitching a perfect sixth inning for the American League in its 3-1 loss to the National League. But far more important than the individual accolades is what his dominant stretch has meant to a team without far too many of its players, and especially without Beckett for the last two months.

Still, Lester said, that hasn’t been his focus. He hasn’t felt the need to compensate for anyone else.

“Just go pitch,’’ he said. “That’s all I can worry about. I can’t worry about what [John] Lackey or Clay [Buchholz] or Dice [Daisuke Matsuzaka] or anybody in our rotation does. I have to worry about my day and my start. If I start worrying about what they’re doing, I’m not focusing on the right things.

“Obviously, when I’m done pitching and you look at our rotation in the days coming up, it’s definitely nice to get [Beckett] back. But I’m not worried about what other guys do. Obviously, I want them to go succeed and pitch well and us win. But I’m not worried about them. They’re grown men. They can take care of themselves.’’

So can Lester, who has righted himself to the tune of an 11-1 record with a 1.90 ERA since his disastrous first three starts of the season (0-2, 8.44 ERA). Since Beckett went down, Lester has combined with Buchholz to provide the Sox with one of the best 1-2 tandems in baseball. He has been all the Sox could have hoped for, and one of the reasons that they still have a chance to make the postseason despite all their injuries.

“It’s been him and Beckett over the last couple of years, one of them has a bad game, the other one comes back the next day and throws a good game and gets them back on a roll,’’ Buchholz said. “That’s Jon. Jon’s stepped up big for the team this year, since [Beckett’s] been gone. Absolutely. He’s a guy that’s going to go up there, you know what you get every time he goes out.

“He’s going to give you six, seven, eight innings, he’s going to strike out a lot of guys, and he’s not going to give up a lot of runs while doing it. Yeah, he’s been this year the driving force of our starting rotation.’’

But, as Lester emphasized, there hasn’t been more for him to do than in any other season. And perhaps that’s part of the reason he has succeeded. With the narrow, start-to-start view, not thinking about the wins or losses or absences of the guys around him, Lester has taken his days to throw and made them brilliant, carrying his teammates along for the ride.

“I think that’s second nature with a guy like him,’’ Buchholz said. “He’s been in the organization, he’s with them for the long term now. He knows he’s going to be pitching every five days. He knows that he’s good enough to win in every game that he goes out and pitches. I don’t think there’s any added stress or pressure on him. I just think whenever he goes out and wins, that’s what he gets back from it.’’

He doesn’t need any more. Lester simply uses the competitiveness that is innate — describing himself and his teammates as competing “until you basically have to rip them off the mound’’ — to motivate him, rather than external forces. Don’t get him wrong. He’s certainly looking forward to Beckett’s return, which could come as soon as Wednesday, but it doesn’t change what he does.

“It’s huge. He’s like the staple of our organization, of our pitching staff,’’ Lester said of Beckett. “He’s a guy that we lean upon, and we need good starts from him. I think he’s going to come back and do that for us.

“I think that’s the biggest thing for us is just getting guys back, taking care of themselves, playing good baseball. I don’t think that’s going to change when these guys come back. I think it’s going to help us. That’s the biggest thing, playing good baseball.’’

That’s exactly what Lester has done, pitching as well as anyone in baseball over the last 2 1/2 months, with numbers that rank as the best of his career — a 1.092 WHIP (walks and hits per nine innings), 6.5 hits allowed per nine innings, and a 2.78 ERA.

“Pretty unbelievable,’’ Buchholz said. “He doesn’t even know why. He doesn’t know why he’s had a slow start the last couple years in April, but it’s the way they tell you: It’s how you finish, it’s not how you start. His ERA wasn’t anything close to what he wanted it to be after the month, and now he’s an All-Star. That sort of explains itself.’’

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

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