BOSTON -- There aren’t many things that Red Sox starter Jon Lester hasn’t done in his career. He’s thrown a no-hitter. He’s won a World Series-clinching game. He’s overcome non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He’s even endured tough times on the mound, struggling in years where the bar seemed to be set as high as an ace can take it.
Despite everything he has accomplished, Lester was still able to do something he’s never done before in Friday’s American League Division Series win against the Tampa Bay Rays.
In his seventh career postseason start, Lester pitched more than seven innings for the first time, going 7 2/3 while allowing only three hits in the Red Sox’s 12-2 win over the Rays. Lester allowed two runs, both on solo homers, and struck out seven.
“The adrenaline was going,” Lester said. “Our game plan early on was to set the tone, come right after the guys.”
Pitching in a game for the first time in six days, Lester came out strong in the first, striking out the side in order on 14 pitches and hitting 97 mph on the stadium gun on his second pitch to Rays leadoff man Desmond Jennings. Of the 10 strikes he threw, five came on swings and misses.
“That first inning was powerful,” manager John Farrell said. “[That was] something that we probably haven’t seen in a couple of years’ time.”
It’s been four years since Lester’s last playoff start, a loss to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim opposite now-teammate John Lackey in the ALDS, and a lot looked different this time out. His fastball remained in the high 90s even after 100 pitches. He didn’t allow back-to-back batters to get on base after the fourth inning. He kept his composure after what he thought was strike three to Rays left fielder Sean Rodriguez was instead called ball three, allowing Rodriguez an extra chance that promptly ended up in the stands one pitch later.
Above all, though, he looked like a Game 1 starter.
“We’ve seen many times when there’s a call in question, he handles it in a way where he’s not going to show emotion on the mound at the moment, but asks [the home plate umpire] after the inning was over,” Farrell said. “That’s as powerful stuff as Jon has had for us all year long, and it came at a very good time.
Farrell added, “I think what we’ve seen throughout the course of this year is Jon has ironed out his delivery to where when he’s got added adrenaline or emotion, he’s still able to channel it in the right way and not sacrifice location with his stuff.”
So, when a shutdown inning was needed following a five-run rally from his team in the bottom of the fourth to take the lead, it was no surprise to Farrell that Lester was able to maintain his focused demeanor and retire the side in order on 11 pitches in the fifth.
However, this came much to the dismay of Rays manager Joe Maddon, who was left expecting a crack in the armor that never came.
“He’s had struggles in the recent past with command issues with his fastball, but that’s not the case right now,” Maddon said. “He just had a really good fastball. He came out there on 97. I was hoping that [his adrenaline would wear off] and [his fastball] would become more of the pedestrian version, but that never happened.”
Despite this start being Lester’s most important of the year, the left-hander said there were no changes in his preparation. Even with more time off than usual, Lester went over scouting reports and prepared a game plan as he always does. Yet, as designated hitter David Ortiz observed before the game, “you knew he was going to be on.”
To Lester, it just comes with the territory of having been in the postseason before.
“Through experience [you] learn how to handle these situations,” Lester said. “I knew two runs wasn’t going to beat us. As long as I kept them close, our guys were going to figure out [Rays starter Matt Moore], and we were able to do that.”