A veteran of 13 major league seasons with six different teams, David Ross has caught many pitchers, many big-game pitchers. But, he has not caught a stretch like the one he’s caught for Jon Lester this season.
“Tim Hudson, I caught for a little bit in Atlanta. Kris Medlen, I’d say, as a younger pitcher,” Ross said. “But that’s in the National League, where it’s totally different.
“What [Lester is] doing with some of the lineups he has to face is just amazing to me. He really goes out every day and gives us a really good chance to win and strikes guys out. You don't see too much solid contact off of him. So he’s doing some good things.”
Lester did just that Thursday afternoon against the White Sox at Fenway Park. He went seven innings, giving up one run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. He threw 105 pitches, 76 for strikes, an impressive 72 percent.
And with Chicago left-hander Jose Quintana throwing a perfect game into the sixth inning, Lester had little margin for error. The lone run he allowed came in the first inning when Adam Eaton led off with a single through the hole into left field followed by a one-out Jose Abreu double.
After that, Lester kept the White Sox offense in check, while Red Sox batters finally got to Quintana for three runs in the sixth, and the Chicago bullpen for the 10th-inning walk-off win.
Of Lester’s 12 strikeouts, nine were swinging, while three were called. Seven of his 12 K’s came on his curveball, with batters swinging and missing on six.
“Probably the best curveball he’s had in a long time,” said manager John Farrell. “The number of strikeouts, the number of swing and miss, his overall strike percentage was outstanding once again. But the curveball today was -- a lot of times you see opposing lineups try to protect against that cutter – but today it was his curveball that was really the difference maker.”
It was the most strikeouts he’s recorded in any start without allowing a walk, becoming the first Sox pitcher with 12 or more strikeouts, no walks, and no more than one run allowed since Pedro Martinez on May 3, 2003, who had the same line against the Twins.
“He located his fastball all day long,” said one scout in attendance. “His cutter was one of the best I’ve seen. It ate up the right-handed hitters, everyone except for Abreu in the first inning. 12 K’s, 0 walks says it all.”
Lester (9-7) was not involved in the decision in the 4-3 walk-off win, as he lowered his ERA from 2.73 to 2.65. The Sox are 12-7 in his outings. It was his third no-decision in his last four starts – all Red Sox wins. In that span, Lester has thrown 30 2/3 innings, allowing seven runs, three earned, on 21 hits with four walks, for a 0.88 ERA. In six outings since his last loss on June 12 against the Indians, has gone 44 2/3 innings, giving up 10 runs, five earned on 33 hits and six walks with 39 strikeouts and no home runs, for a 1.01 ERA. The Sox have won each of those games.
As you watch Lester, you can almost see him making a plan for each batter, each at-bat, each pitch.
“It’s a good little chess match. But you can’t do that, I can’t do that without the stuff that he brings,” said Ross, who has caught all but three of Lester’s starts this season, and every one since May 27.
“I feel like he really understands what I’m trying to do or what we’re trying to do, the game plan. And when he executes it, it just shows how good his stuff is. Because really if he’s making his pitches, it’s going to be a tough day for the other team.
“The one good thing about catching him a lot is you can see the adjustments or what kind of plan a team may have against him, like they’re going to swing early or a lot of them came up to the plate kind of standing off the dish a little bit, trying to get up on the fastball in. So what we did, just walked the cutter in there. And once they start swinging there, we just start the breaking ball in and it just disappears straight down. So when he throws it hard to that side of the plate, the guy’s got to commit one way or the other.”
Which makes it fun as a catcher.
“Oh it’s a blast,” Ross said. “It makes my job so much fun. There’s not anything I enjoy more in baseball than punching out 10, 11 guys and having that guy just cruse thru a lineup, and him just dominating a lineup. It’s a lot of fun. It makes me feel like I’m smart.”
Farrell has said Lester’s recent performances are the best the manager/former pitching coach has seen of the left-hander’s career. Lester, though, is not interested in ranking each outing, or looking back at his stretch of dominance.
“For me, just going out and grinding it out, trying to keep my team in the game as best I can,” he said.
“I just take the ball every five days and pitch, and whatever the outcome may be, it is what it is.”
Lester, who can be a free agent after the season, said he does not look at this stretch of games as anything more than being a competitor.
“I’m not here to make statements,” he said. “I’m here to win baseball games. That’s all I worry about right now, and the personal stuff will take care of itself. That’s far from my mind right now. I don’t hold any grudges against people. That doesn’t motivate me to pitch better. I’m a competitor and I want to pitch well regardless if I’m a free agent-to-be or if I’ve got years on my contract left.”
Lester’s next appearance will be in the All-Star Game on Tuesday, which would be his normal day to start. Farrell, as manager of the American League team, has not yet said who his starting pitcher will be, but he doesn’t expect any of his 13 pitchers to go more than an inning.
It’s an honor to be in the All-Star Game, but starting pitchers are creatures of habit. Given the stretch he’s been on, wouldn’t he rather just keep going on a regular five-day schedule and not take time off?
“No,” Lester said with a laugh. “I think we all need a break, both mentally and physically. Regardless of how good you feel, I think it could benefit me because I don’t stop throwing. I don’t stop doing the things, my workouts and stuff like that. So I still have to prepare for Tuesday, whether that’s an inning, a batter, whatever it is. So I think that can benefit. But no I think everybody in this room, we’ve had a long first half, hopefully we can down to Houston and have a good series and go into the break feeling good about ourselves and take a little bit of a mental breather and come back after the break and get after it.”