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Command still issue for Lester

By Nicole Auerbach
Globe Correspondent / June 8, 2011

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NEW YORK — High hopes traveled to the Bronx for Jon Lester’s start against the Yankees last night.

He’d brought a pretty good track record against the Yankees — a 7-1 career record and a 3.49 ERA. He was also coming off a week’s rest, and he said he usually pitches better with a little extra time off.

Lester seemed ripe for a strong start, the kind that could get the lefthander back on track after a rough stretch in which he posted a 6.52 ERA in five starts and lacked command of his pitches.

Last night wasn’t his prettiest outing, but by getting key outs and limiting damage, Lester delivered the Sox a 6-4 series-opening victory over the Yankees, who are percentage points ahead of the Sox in the American League East standings.

Lester’s recent struggles manifested themselves as he hit two batters and allowed eight hits in six innings. Runners reached base safely in all but one of those innings. He needed 33 pitches to get out of the first inning alone.

Fortunately for Lester, the Sox offense did more damage than that to Yankees pitching. The Red Sox gave him a three-run cushion in the first, so despite some nerve-racking moments, Lester walked away with the victory. It’s his eighth win, most in the AL.

“That’s a tough lineup,’’ Sox manager Terry Francona said. “If you make any mistakes, they’re going to make you pay. If he came out of that game with a win, that’s good enough.’’

Cutters caused problems for Lester — both pitches that hit batters were cutters, including the one that struck Mark Teixeira’s knee and knocked him out of the game in the first inning. Lester and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia thought the cutters weren’t bad pitches, they just kept cutting too much.

“A lot of guys don’t move,’’ said Lester. “It looks like a fastball and obviously it breaks in, and they don’t have time to react by the time it gets there. That’s just kind of what you get with that pitch.’’

Lester also said after the game he felt strong, the best he’s felt in a while, mechanics-wise.

Still, he lacked the pinpoint control typically associated with a Lester start. He threw just 66 of 112 pitches for strikes, only accumulating five strikeouts.

“I think Jonny in the past has gone through stuff like this,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “It’s just something he goes through.

“He goes through a little rut for a few starts, and then all of the sudden he’s back to Jonny, where he hits spots and throws it wherever he wants. I think that’s just what this is.’’

The Yankee lineup deserves some credit, too, for forcing Lester to go deep into counts by fighting off good pitches. Saltalamacchia said all of Lester’s pitches were working — and had good velocity — and the Yankees simply battled and earned their way on base.

Lester has now won five consecutive starts against the Yankees, becoming the first Boston pitcher to do so since Reggie Cleveland from 1975-77, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Lester’s record in Yankee Stadium improved to 5-1.

“His bad day is giving up three, four runs,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “For most people, that’s 10 or 12. At the end of the day, you’ve got to smile and be happy about the win.’’

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