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Lester has been Red Sox ace in a hole

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  June 28, 2010 01:44 PM

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There were certain assumptions made about the Red Sox before this season that now seem outmoded nearly halfway through the arduous 162-game schedule.

We assumed the Red Sox would be a team that squeezed across runs at the same rate that a World Cup soccer side scores goals, that Jason Bay would be sorely missed in left field and that they possessed an indistinguishable trio of No. 1 pitchers in Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey.

Seventy-seven games into the season, the Red Sox lead the majors in runs scored, slugging percentage and .OPS, Bay's name is rarely uttered, even by Theo Epstein's most vociferous critics, and the Red Sox have one indomitable, indisputable ace -- Jon Lester.

While Beckett nurses a lower back strain that has prevented him from pitching or lowering his 7.29 ERA since May 19 and Lackey does a pretty fair Daisuke Matsuzaka impression, racking up wins and baserunners at an equal rate, Lester (9-3) has as many wins as those two combined, more strikeouts than the two highly-paid Texans (111 to 96) and more complete games (2-0).

His second complete game of the season, which came yesterday in a 5-1 win over the San Francisco Giants, was the epitome of what it means to be an ace, a No. 1 starter, a stopper, or any other appellation you can conjure up for a team's best pitcher.

A day after Clay Buchholz, the only pitcher on the Red Sox staff who could mount any challenge to Lester's ace status this season, pulled up lame running the bases, forcing the Red Sox to use seven relievers, Lester relieved the bullpen by going the distance. He allowed a single run while working with two different Boston catchers and outdueling two-time Cy Young Award-winner Tim Lincecum.

The importance of his economical (103 pitches) and overpowering (nine strikeouts) effort can't be overstated. Lester, who lowered his ERA to 2.86 and strengthened his case to make his first All-Star team, saved what would have felt like a calamitous road trip, from Jonathan Papelbon's collapse in Colorado to the injuries suffered by Dustin Pedroia and Victor Martinez and Buchholz.

Instead of going home with more injuries than wins on a star-crossed sojourn, the Red Sox returned to Fenway with a .500 record and a "we'll manage" mien.

And with an off-day today, Lester allowed manager Terry Francona to give his fried bullpen two days off heading into tomorrow's important series with American League East rival Tampa Bay. It may have been the single most important pitching performance of the season so far, considering the circumstances, and if there was still any debate as to whom the Red Sox' No. 1 pitcher it was left in San Francisco.

If it hadn't been for Jonathan Broxton's implosion a few hundred miles south in Los Angeles, the Red Sox would have left the West Coast just a game out of first place, remarkable considering their start and Lester's. Since April 23, a day that Lester took the mound against the Baltimore Orioles sporting an 8.44 earned run average, he has posted a 1.88 ERA in 13 starts.

The truth is there shouldn't have been an ace argument in the first place, with all due respect to Beckett and Lackey, two top of the line starters. The 26-year-old Lester has been the Sox' ace since the second half of last season. He was Francona's choice to start the opener of the American League Division Series last fall against the Angels. Last season, only Lincecum and Justin Verlander averaged more strikeouts per 9 innings than the electric lefthander.

But there was a debate because of the enduring memory of Beckett's brilliant 2007 season and the uncertainty surrounding his contract status entering spring training. Beckett was awarded a four-year extension, starting next season that will pay him $68 million. He's making $12 million this season in the final season of his old deal, or about three times what Lester, who signed a five-year, $30 million extension last season, will make this season ($3.75 million). The Red Sox doled out $82 million and a five-year contract to bring Lackey to Boston during the offseason.

However, ace status is decided by performance and not pay grade.

Lester has been both durable and dominant since 2008, despite his notoriously slow starts. Lester would be one to agree with T.S. Eliot's words from "The Waste Land" -- April is the cruelest month. He has compiled a 3-6 record and a 4.76 ERA in March/April over the last three seasons.

Even with his early-season woes, his 31 wins the last two seasons were more than both Beckett and Lackey mustered, and among the triumvirate, only the Red Sox sine qua non southpaw had topped 200 innings in each of the last two seasons; Beckett tossed 212 1/3 innings last season, a career-high, a probable precursor to his DL stint this year.

What makes Lester's performance over the last two and a half seasons even more impressive is that it's taking place in the American League East, which is baseball's version of the Bermuda Triangle for starting pitchers. Just ask Javier Vasquez. Lackey has come to learn pretty quickly that it's a little bit different facing the Rays and the Yankees than Oakland and Seattle, a pair of light-hitting teams in pitcher-friendly ballparks.

Safeco Field and the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum just happen to have the two lowest ballpark ERAs in all of baseball -- 3.22 and 3.41, respectively -- this season.

The AL East is home to some pretty good young lefthanded starters in Tampa's David Price and Toronto's Ricky Romero, but none better than Lester.

The Red Sox put themselves in an early hole this season, and Lester has been the ace who has gotten hitters out and gotten them out of it. Now, if Beckett, who should return late next month, and Lackey, who goes for his ninth win tomorrow against the Rays, can live up to their end of the bargain the Red Sox will have pitching in spades.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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