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Lester had just what Sox needed

6/18/2014

BOSTON -- The back end of the Red Sox bullpen couldn’t take much more entering Tuesday night’s game.

Closer Koji Uehara, 39 years young, had pitched in four of the team’s last five games, including the most recent three straight. In front of him, Andrew Miller (four straight), Burke Badenhop (three of last four) and Craig Breslow (two of last three) were also pushing the boundaries of overuse.

The Red Sox needed a strong start from their ace, Jon Lester. What he delivered was among his gutsiest outings of the season in their 2-1 win over the Minnesota Twins.

Following a 33-pitch first inning that set an ominous tone for the evening, Lester settled down and retired 11 straight batters from the last out of the first to the first out of the fifth. He fired 6 1/3 one-run innings against the Twins on his way to his eighth win of the season.

“He somehow found a way to become a little bit more efficient,” manager John Farrell said. “Thirty-three pitches in the first and I believe 50-plus after two. Thinking it might be even shorter than the ability to get into the seventh inning, but he found a way.”

Looking to get off to a fast start, Lester got ahead of Twins leadoff man Danny Santana 1-2 on three pitches before the rookie fouled off six fastballs on his way to an 11-pitch at-bat that ended in a single. Tough at-bats from Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer ended in outs, but a nine-pitch walk to Jose Willingham pushed Lester to 31 pitches. To the mound came Farrell and catcher David Ross to talk to Lester, who settled down to retire Kendrys Morales on two pitches following the lengthy conversation.

“You talk about getting back to simplifying things,” Ross said. “There was a lot of hard work and we were just trying to get him to say, ‘Hey, we’re one out away, one pitch away. Let’s focus on each pitch, that’s all.’ ”

“[It was] a long inning, a lot of foul balls, and obviously the walk to Willingham,” Lester said. “I was fortunate to get out of there without any runs scored.”

From there, Lester went into cruise control, striking out the side on 14 pitches in the second and throwing 43 pitches over the next three frames before he encountered trouble with a leadoff double in the sixth by Santana, who came around to score on a Mauer RBI double. Along the way, Lester’s sixth and final strikeout on the night marked No. 1,342 of his career, moving him into fourth place ahead of Cy Young on the franchise’s all-time strikeout list.

Once Lester turned the ball over to the bullpen at 109 pitches with one out in the seventh, Farrell worked strategically with the arms he had. Badenhop faced one batter, retiring him on three pitches, while Breslow came in and rebounded quickly from a four-pitch walk to Eduardo Escobar to escape the inning.

Junichi Tazawa, given the day off Monday, struck out the side in the eighth, leaving closing duties to a surprising choice in the form of Edward Mujica. Mujica, who entered with a 6.29 ERA in just over 24 innings, hadn’t pitched in a game since June 11.

“The reason we brought Edward in here was to be that secondary closer on days Koji wasn’t available [or] in the event of an injury that might have been unforeseen,” Farrell said. “He feels more comfortable in that ninth inning, there’s added adrenaline, better stuff.”

Whether it was the adrenaline or the extra rest, Mujica consistently popped the mitt with a low-90s fastball that Farrell said was the best velocity he’s seen from him all year. Mujica struck out the first two batters he faced and induced a fly-out to left for his second save of the season.

“It’s pretty good, when you’ve got those opportunities like that,” Mujica said. “I’m here when Koji has a day off like today. They’re going to give me the chance and I’m glad to be here.”

Ross was impressed with what he saw from Mujica in Uehara’s typical role.

“When you’ve got somebody with the resume he has, to come in there and pick up Koji when everybody is expecting Koji to run out there, [instead] you see Eddie come out of there. It was nice to see him throw the ball well.

“He did good, it was nice. Actually our bullpen as a whole really did a great job.”

No doubt one of the team’s brightest spots in the early-going this season, Tuesday’s performance lowered the Red Sox relief corps' ERA to 2.77, second-lowest in the AL. Combined with an effective Lester, the four arms Farrell used to close out Tuesday’s win over the Twins were enough to give the team exactly what they needed heading into a day game on Wednesday.

“Overall, the entire bullpen, there’s been a couple of hiccups along the way, but I think for the most part, guys have come in and they’re throwing strikes. We’ve been able to match up as best we can,” Farrell said. “[Lester’s] performance allowed us to piece some things together in the bullpen when we had a couple of guys we were trying to stay away from tonight in Miller and Koji.”