BOSTON -- The outing didn’t exactly get off to a crisp start for Jon Lester.
The left-hander labored in a 22-pitch first inning in which he was tagged for a pair of doubles and one run. He also labored at times in a scoreless 20-pitch second inning.
But it was in the second inning that Lester seemed to find his rhythm. Lester wound up allowing only three hits and the one run in his seven innings, earning his 12th win of the season in Boston’s 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park in the opening game of a day-night doubleheader Tuesday.
Lester, who snapped a two-game losing streak in raising his record to 12-6, outdueled the Rays’ James Shields, thanks to Jacoby Ellsbury’s three-run third-inning homer and airtight relief from Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon (28th save).
Lester’s game took a turn for the better in the second after he hit a batter and walked the next with one out. Elliot Johnson, the Rays’ number nine hitter, tried to drop down a bunt, but he popped it up and third baseman Kevin Youkilis reeled it in.
From that point on, Lester kept the Tampa Bay hitters from reaching base, retiring 17 of the final 18 batters he faced. Beginning with Johnson’s popout, Lester set down 12 in a row, the spell broken by Evan Longoria’s single with one out in the sixth. Lester then mowed down the final five batters he faced.
At one stretch, Lester struck out four batters in a row en route to eight whiffs. And while his pitch count rose to worrisome levels early (79 through four innings), Lester became more economical, throwing only 34 pitches over his last three innings for a final total of 113.
This was the 10th time in his last 11 starts that Lester has permitted three or fewer runs.
THE HOME-RUN GROOVE: The potential was there for Jacoby Ellsbury to hit home runs, but the Red Sox center fielder has truly blossomed in that department this season.
In Tuesday’s afternoon portion of the day-night doubleheader, Ellsbury crushed a three-run homer off one of the Rays’ aces, James Shields, giving Boston all three of its runs en route to a 3-1 victory.
It was the 21st homer of the year for Ellsbury, who had clubbed a total of only 20 in his first three big-league seasons. Ellsbury, the Sox’ leadoff man, is the second-leading home-run hitter on the club, behind only designated hitter David Ortiz, who has clouted 24 homers, and ahead of other more well known home-run hitters such as Adrian Gonzalez (18) and Kevin Youkilis (17).
The round-tripper also was Ellsbury’s fourth three-run shot of the year. Only Ortiz (five, including a grand slam) has more homers with at least two runners on base.
One of the keys to Ellsbury’s home-run prowess this year has been his discipline at the plate, learning which pitches he can drive well enough to hit out of the ballpark. Tuesday’s homer came on a thigh-high, down-the-middle pitch from Shields that Ellsbury pulled over the Rays’ bullpen in right.
EFFICIENT OFFENSE: The Red Sox had only three hits against Shields. But they all came in the third inning, producing their three runs. Josh Reddick and Mike Aviles singled in advance of Ellsbury’s homer.
BEHIND THE EIGHT-BALL EARLY: The Red Sox have had to battle back from early deficits a lot lately. Tuesday afternoon, Jon Lester limited the first-inning damage to one run, but that constituted the fifth time in the last six games that a Boston starter has coughed up at least one run in the opening inning.