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No ‘W’, but a winning effort for Lester

By Alex Prewitt
Globe Correspondent / July 29, 2012
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NEW YORK — Perhaps it was the perfect first inning. Perhaps it was the way he battled back from a disastrous fifth. Perhaps it was the way his cutter hummed inside on right-handed hitters, resulting in plenty of foul balls yanked over the Red Sox dugout.

But whatever it was, Jon Lester showed marked improvement across the board in his six innings of work Saturday in the Red Sox’ 8-6 win over the Yankees. It wasn’t a gem by any stretch. But progress flickered throughout for the lefthander.

“He was awesome,” catcher Kelly Shoppach said. “He was aggressive. He’s convicted in all his pitches, he threw them all for strikes. He set the pace out there and he worked.”

Then again, anything would have been a leg up from Lester’s last outing, when he allowed 11 runs and a career-high four homers. The long ball still made an appearance when Lester allowed home runs to Jayson Nix and Chris Stewart, who entered with three combined homers this season. But Lester struck out six, scattered four hits, and left with a 6-4 lead.

It will go down as a no-decision after Vicente Padilla gave up a two-run bomb to Mark Teixeira in the eighth, but Lester was sharp nonetheless. He retired eight straight to start the game before Stewart pulled a 2-and-1 fastball to left for his first homer in 105 at-bats.

Lester hadn’t made it past the fifth inning in his last three starts, allowing 21 earned runs in 12innings during that span. Through the struggles, he and manager Bobby Valentine kept insisting that Lester’s arsenal, especially his cutter, was solid.

“I always believe in his stuff,” Shoppach said. “You’ve got to be really quick. You don’t have time to wait around and see what’s going to happen. He kind of forced the issue, and even if it’s not going, you keep throwing it until it starts working.”

This time, it materialized in results.

“It’s all the things I’ve been preaching all along, just making those adjustments,” Lester said. “It carried through the whole game. Gave up four hits, that fly ball to right is a homer, that’s kind of the nature of the beast here at Yankee Stadium. We were real pleased with how I threw the ball.”

Of the six strikeouts, including fanning Robinson Cano on a cutter in the sixth, the 1,000th of Lester’s career, none was bigger than his inning-ending strikeout of Curtis Granderson in the fifth.

Gifted a 6-1 lead after Adrian Gonzalez’s three-run blast in the top of the inning, Lester walked Andruw Jones on four pitches to lead off the inning. Nix then homered to right. Five batters later, with Ichiro Suzuki on third and the lead chopped to 6-4, Lester pumped a fastball by Granderson.

“Jon had what we needed, that’s what we’re looking for,” Valentine said.

“Before that [fifth] inning and after that inning, he was perfect. That one inning he just let it get away from him a little with the walks, but you know, he kept the ball down in the zone, he changed sides of the plate, he mixed his pitches, he looked very good.”

In Texas Wednesday, Lester threw an extended bullpen session and seemed pleased with the results. But he shook off the idea that it paved the way for Saturday’s outing.

“Yeah, it’s nice to have a sharp one, it’s nice, the things you’ve been working on, have them click a little bit,” Lester said. “It’s just like the bullpen before the game. It’s time to warm up to get loose and try to be prepared as far as you can physically to be ready to pitch. That’s all you can worry about.

“I’m really happy with how I threw the ball. I’m not even going to worry about the other stuff. I’ve got the feeling of how I felt today on the mound, and hopefully it’ll carry over and try to get on a roll.’’

Alex Prewitt can be reached at aprewitt@globe.com.

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