ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- So, what future accusations lie in wait for Jon Lester? After spitballs for Clay Buchholz and steroids for David Ortiz, surely there is some manner of chicanery to which we can link the Red Sox left-hander, now 6-0 after breezing to a 9-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays here Wednesday night.
Eavesdropping on the Associated Press? Profiling tax returns for the IRS? Spying in Russia for the CIA? The possibilities are endless for Lester, who just wants you to believe that all he does is come to the ballpark and put up W's. You know what they say: The quiet ones are the ones usually up to the most mischief.
Are we really supposed to take on face value that nine starts into the 2013 season, Lester's status as one of the best left-handers in the American League has been restored, simply by virtue of his ability to execute pitches, an explanation he inherited from Josh Beckett during the prickly right-hander's tenure in Boston?
"He went out and pitched," manager John Farrell said after Lester snapped Tampa Bay's six-game winning streak and ran his record to 4-0 with a 1.94 ERA in six starts after a Sox loss this season. "The most encouraging thing is consistency to his changeup and his curveball. They both have very good definition. It's given him four good pitches that he can spread the zone with and take different attack plans, given the hitter. A solid seven innings of work for him here."
It is no accident that Beckett's name surfaces here. With five strikeouts Wednesday, Lester has passed Beckett to rank fifth on the team's all-time strikeout list with 1,110, two more than Beckett. Earlier this season he passed El Tiante, too, and Cy Young himself is next in his sights (1,341).
"I think the biggest thing is I feel really good with my off-speed, my changeup and my curveball," Lester said. "My curveball, it's been a while since it's felt as good as it did tonight."
Lester threw 20 curveballs Wednesday night, 14 of them for strikes, according to Brooksbaseball.net.
ESPN, CNN, MSNBC, E!, Spike, The Food Channel, TruTV and most surely the Boston Globe will soon be sending investigative teams to vet Lester, who is now officially off to the best start of his career, having surpassed the 5-0 start that accompanied his big league debut in 2006, when he was called up in June.
They may want to start with his control. For the second straight start, Lester did not walk a batter, something he was unable to accomplish in any of his 31 starts in 2011. The flirtation he enjoyed with perfection in his last start, when he set down the first 17 batters in a row and finished with a one-hit, complete-game shutout, was not repeated here. Desmond Jennings, the first Tampa Bay batter of the game, lined a single.
But with the luxury of an eight-run lead, the Sox piling on in the third inning with the big blow a grand slam by Stephen Drew, Lester pitched to contact, allowing eight hits, and a couple of runs in the third. The Rays obliged, going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position against Lester and relievers Koji Uehara and Jose De La Torre.
Drew walked to lead off the third and scored, and hit a high drive into the right-field seats for the second slam of his career, the first coming off Sox teammate Ryan Dempster, when Dempster was a Cub and Drew a Diamondback on April 28, 2011. He also doubled in the sixth and is batting .348 (16-for-46) in May, with three doubles, three home runs and 12 RBIs in 12 games.
"He's been swinging with much more consistency," Farrell said. "He's come up with some guys on base, he's driven in some runs. That last couple of nights, the consistency of the timing at the plate is much more there than it might have been when he first came back to us. It's good to see that kind of contribution, that kind of production, out of the bottom third of the order."
It should not go overlooked that in 29 starts at shortstop since returning from concussive symptoms, Drew has committed just one error in 108 chances, matching Elvis Andrus of Texas for fewest errors in the American League. He makes all the routine plays and the occasional outstanding one. Combine his defense with that of second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who has yet to make an error in 40 games this season, and you have the makings of a suffocating up-the-middle defense.
Hitting with runners in scoring position was supposed to be a Sox malady, but Wednesday night they were 5-for-11 in such situations, consecutive RBI hits delivered by Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes before Drew unloaded with his grand slam off reliever Jamey Wright.
Wright relieved David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner, who left with what the team called tightness in his left triceps and is experiencing the kind of reversal of fortune that befell Lester in September 2011 and continued through last season.
Price, a 20-game winner with a 2.56 ERA last season, is now 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA in nine starts this season, with fears that a trip to the disabled list may be looming.
"I haven't ever been on the DL," said Price, who said he felt discomfort while walking Drew to start the third. "This is something I take pride in -- being available every fifth day and being out there for my team. I don't know how that's looking right now. The biggest thing is going to be how I feel tomorrow."
The Sox, losers of nine of their previous 11 until winning Wednesday night, pulled back into a second-place tie with the Orioles (both are 23-17), a quarter of the way through the season. Will Middlebrooks capped off the scoring with an opposite-field home run, his seventh, tying him with Napoli for most on the club.
Both Farrell and Middlebrooks suggested that his collision last week with catcher David Ross might have had unintended consequences, forcing the third baseman to cut down on his swing.
"I was getting kind of big," he said. "I was swinging a little hard and I didn't realize it. Just trying to do a little too much. With that bruise, it kind of slowed me down a little bit and I think it helped."