Jon Lester has a very important job tonight, the ramifications of which range beyond simply ensuring the Red Sox do not board a plane bound for Anaheim and Game 5 of the ALDS.
Lester, the new ace, is charged with keeping at bay the familiar — yet nearly forgotten — feelings of inadequacy and dread that once shackled this organization and all of New England this time of year.
Is that overstating it?
Maybe. But remember, this is the kind of nightmare Red Sox followers feared and lived through time after time, for the 86 years prior to 2004. The Red Sox had complete control of the series. They faced 80 pitches last night/early this morning that could have instantly ended the game and the series. Now they are nine innings from going back to Anaheim for Game 5.
The Red Sox remained confident early this morning in their clubhouse, and their experience and success in crucial situations gives them reason to be. It is up to Lester tonight to deliver another start that cements the 24-year-old lefthander as one of baseball’s elite pitchers.
Lester, stepping in for Josh Beckett in the opener of this series, threw 117 pitches, improving as the game aged. He retired the final seven batters he faced, striking out four of them. He allowed one run in seven innings. Awesome is the best word to describe what he did.
But he must again face John Lackey, who lost to Lester only because he threw one awful pitch and Jason Bay punished him for it. If not for Bay’s two-run home run and Lackey’s defense betraying him later, the game could have easily been 1-1 or even 1-0 Angels when Lester departed in Game 1.
This game, though, is at home, a haven for Lester. You know the numbers: 11-1, 2.49 ERA at Fenway Park. “You drive yourself to the ballpark, and don’t have to worry about anything else,” Lester said. “I guess I’m just comfortable here.”
Lackey, by now, feels comfortable at Fenway and against the Red Sox lineup, too. He carried a no-hitter deep into a July game at Fenway, allowing only two hits and two runs — both on a Kevin Youkilis homer — in a complete-game victory.
He’ll face the Red Sox again today in the most significant game of the season for both teams. That notion, Lester said, will fade for him as soon as he climbs the mound.
“No, no,” Lester said. “I just have to worry about my pitches. I can’t worry about us going back to LA or the bullpen situation. I just have to worry about going out and executing my pitches. That’s all I can worry about. You can’t worry about stuff you can’t control.”
Is there anyone you would rather have throwing tonight? Lester understands pressure better than a man his age should. It served him well in Game 1, and it should him well in Game 4, when Lester — the ace — will take the ball and the responsibility of closing out the Angels.
“I don’t know,” Lester said. “I think it’s just you’ve got that extra edge. That little extra intensity of the game. You know, I guess that puts you on your toes a little bit more. And being able to go out and execute pitches, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do that. And hopefully I’ll continue to do that.”