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Rest was up to him

Lester’s return not to be missed

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / August 28, 2010

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Jon Lester wasn’t supposed to pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays last night.

The lefthander was originally scheduled to face the Seattle Mariners in Boston Wednesday, but that changed when Daisuke Matsuzaka complained of a sore back.

Lester was put on hold until last night, taking Matsuzaka’s place against the Rays. It proved to be a fortuitous switch for the Red Sox as he allowed one (unearned) run on two hits over seven innings in a 3-1 victory.

“That was a big win for us,’’ said Lester, who said the atmosphere at Tropicana Field and what was at stake for the third-place Sox was somewhat reminiscent of a playoff game. “We needed that. We just battled and that’s what we’ve been doing all season long.’’

It was an odd game for Lester. Although he gave up only two singles, he matched his career high with five walks and threw three wild pitches for the first time. He also hit a batter.

“It seems strange. It didn’t seem like I had that many walks,’’ Lester said.

But Tampa could not capitalize on that wildness: The Rays were 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position against Lester.

“Once they got base runners on, [Lester] made some unbelievable pitches,’’ manager Terry Francona said.

Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay’s most productive hitter, was 0 for 3 against Lester, each time leaving runners stranded in scoring position.

With runners on first and second in the first inning, Longoria grounded into a double play. He struck out with two on in the fourth and struck out again with two on in the sixth.

“He was a little bit different Jon Lester than we normally see, that overpowering cutter and 94-95 mile-per-hour fastball,’’ Longoria said. “But he figured out a way to do it with what he had.’’

Lester had thrown only two innings and 51 pitches over the previous 12 days. His last start (Aug. 20) was one of the worst of his career as Lester gave up nine runs on eight hits against Toronto.

But last night, facing fellow All-Star David Price, Lester was back in form. Despite throwing only 58 of his 106 pitches for strikes, the Rays were unable to make good contract.

“He was really good,’’ Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “He got really sharp as the game was in progress. He really made good pitches all night long.’’

The only run Lester allowed came in the fourth inning and it was due to excessive sloppiness.

Jason Bartlett started the inning with a routine grounder, but shortstop Marco Scutaro, who is playing with a sore shoulder, made a throw that pulled Mike Lowell off the bag.

Carlos Pena followed with a single. After Longoria struck out, Lester got ahead of Willy Aybar, but bounced a curveball in the dirt that got away from catcher Victor Martinez just enough for the runners to advance.

Lester went back to his curve and this time it bounced 3 feet in front of the plate and rolled to the backstop. Bartlett scored and Pena went to third.

Lester minimized the damage by striking out Aybar and getting Ben Zobrist to foul out to left field.

Lester got in trouble again in the sixth inning as leadoff hitter B.J. Upton walked and stole second. He tried to score on a single to center by Bartlett but was thrown out at the plate by Darnell McDonald.

“That was a great throw. That changed the momentum of that inning,’’ Lester said. “These guys play off momentum and that helped get it back onto our side.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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