BOSTON -- There are times in Jon Lester's career, as Red Sox manager John Farrell tells it, that you just keep the reins loose. You give him the ball, then you get out of the way.
Perhaps that best explains why, with relievers Andrew Miller and Koji Uehara warming up to start the eighth inning, Lester came out and finished the inning off, inducing Nelson Cruz into a highlight-reel double play turned by Stephen Drew to leave one of the majors' most-feared hitters at 0-for-4 on the day.
"He's in that gray area, we're sending him out with 108 pitches to start the eighth inning, but he never really labored at all," Farrell said after Boston's 3-2 win. "Because of the rhythm, he never overworked to create velocity. He was coming off a couple of extra days' rest so we had that on our side. Just a very strong game by Jon."
In all, it was another masterful performance for the lefty. Lester got a no-decision, striking out seven and allowing no earned runs in eight innings and 118 pitches (83 strikes), inducing 13 groundouts and three fly outs.
Catcher David Ross said Lester was "as good as I've seen ... in awhile."
Lester worked both sides of plate, getting hitters to chase low and in, low and away, and even up high a few times.
"He was really sharp today, throwing the ball to both sides of the plate [with a] down angle, great cutter, great breaking ball, had some phenomenal two-seam fastballs to get ground balls," Ross said. "Sometimes for me, Johnny can get a little rattled, but today he really kept his poise. We didn't really play well behind him, but he kept his poise, it was a very mature start for him today with great stuff."
Cruz came into Saturday's game with some favorable history against Lester, registering .458/.519/1.000 totals in 24 at-bats, but he came up empty Saturday, thwarted four times by Lester's deceitful movement -- including a called third strike on a four-seamer away in the third.
As Lester's pitch count climbed, he mixed in his curveball, ringing up two of his seven K's on breaking balls that dropped off the plate. His final strikeout of the night came on a 77 mph curve to Caleb Joseph, who golfed at the ball as it dropped far enough below the zone that Ross had to block it.
"I feel good. Fastball command has been pretty good," Lester said. "I feel like I have gotten the consistency back with my cutter, which has been helpful at times, especially on righties. All in all, I am moving the ball around pretty good. Keeping it down, keeping the ball on the ground.
"The base hits today, a couple of them were on the ground, a couple of them just got over the infielder's heads. I'll take that all day."
Since the beginning of June, Lester has gone 4-1 in seven starts with an ERA of 1.65, striking out 39 batters in 49 innings and allowing just eight walks. He posted an ERA of 1.98 for the month of June, his best full month in nearly four years, and that has led to discussion about possible inclusion on the All-Star Game roster.
But the bigger topic might be the one nobody wants to talk about right now. After turning down a reported four-year, $70 million extension this past offseason, contract talks have loomed over his head as he seeks a big payday.
"I really can't imagine the pressure of that along with the pressure of just trying to pitch your game and help your team win," Jonny Gomes noted. "If there's a book to be written, he's definitely writing about how to deal with it."
Not that Lester's getting rattled about it.
"Judging by today, I don't think it was much of a distraction," he scoffed.