Saturday, May 11, 2013
Lester not perfect, but perfectly satisfying
By Gordon Edes
BOSTON -- One moment, Jon Lester was working on a perfect game. The next, he was trying to survive.
It can change that fast when it's the sixth inning, Maicer Izturis is standing on second base after hitting a good pitch -- a changeup down and away -- for a double, and your team has managed just one run off 40-year-old Ramon Ortiz, who has come back from the dead so many times he makes zombies look like amateurs.
That can alter your universe in a heartbeat. A change in atmospheric pressure? All night, Lester had been pitching from the windup, which is what you do when you don't allow any baserunners. Seventeen Blue Jays had come up, 17 Lester had set down.
Jon Lester dominated from the windup all night, and got the one big out he needed from the stretch.
But now he was pitching out of the stretch for the first time and facing a pinch hitter, Adam Lind, whom he hadn't seen yet this season, which took some doing, given that this was the third time in eight starts he was facing Toronto. Most of the Jays, Lester could recite their birthdays by heart.
But Lind, who had remained anchored to the bench in Lester's two starts in Toronto last month, introduced at least an element of mystery. Lester had handled him with ease in the past -- in 28 previous plate appearances against the Sox lefty, Lind had just three hits while striking out 10 times -- but Lester was taking nothing for granted.
He'd seen how quickly things had turned the night before for John Lackey, who had also taken a one-run lead into the sixth, only to throw a ball into center field, the catalyst for four opposing runners to cross home plate. When things are trending the way they have lately for the Sox, who came into the game losers of six of their past seven, it's a perilously thin line between victory and defeat.
And that's the high wire on which Lester was perched Friday night, his 6-foot-4 frame now turned toward first base instead of straight toward the plate, his eyes glancing over his shoulder at Izturis.
"It can be a little different with a guy in scoring position with a 1-0 lead," Lester said, "but you've got to do the same thing: Focus down. Don't allow Lind to lift the ball, especially to left field. If we beat him and it's up just a little bit with that Monster out there, it can obviously change a lot of games."
All night, Lester had relied on his sinker against the Jays, a pitch he'd barely thrown in his last start in Rogers Centre, when the Jays cuffed him around for six runs. In that game, he threw a total of seven sinkers. Friday night in the Fens, Lester remained on a downward tilt all night, living at the bottom of the strike zone, throwing 52 sinkers, 41 for strikes.
The strategy didn't deviate with Lind, either, although at first, the execution did. He missed with two sinkers for balls, then with a fastball, running the count to 3 and 0. Anxious? Many in the crowd of 33,606, which before Izturis' hit had been on the edge of their seats for a different reason, were now sending up silent prayers.
"The first three pitches weren't competitive at all," Lester said. "I was just trying to get my bearings back in the stretch."
But then came the next three, all sinkers that proceeded directly to their target -- Jarrod Saltalamacchia's glove -- without the slightest inclination to alter course.
"The next three," Lester said of those pitches, "were about as well as I can throw a ball."
Lind took the first for a strike. He watched the second for strike two. He hacked at the third, but might as well have been using a garden hoe -- that's how low in the zone the pitch remained.
Lead preserved. Equilibrium restored. Back in the windup, Lester set down the last 10 Jays in order, striking out Lind again for the coda to the first Sox one-hitter since Josh Beckett threw one against the Tampa Bay Rays in the Trop. It has been 11 years since a Sox pitcher allowed just one baserunner in Fenway; that was Derek Lowe, who once reigned as king of the Sox sinkerballers, in his no-hitter against the Rays on April 27, 2002.
Lester's one-hitter came nine days before the fifth anniversary of his no-hitter against the Royals, when he was 24 years old, in his first full season in the big leagues, and stuck the game ball in his cowboy boot. Compare this one to that? Might as well compare a rotary phone to the iPhone 5.
"I think it's completely the opposite," he said. "I feel like back then I was such a thrower, not really a pitcher. The best way to put it, I was effectively wild. I was trying to go down and away, I'd go up and in, and they'd hit a fly ball somewhere. I was not really understanding what was going on. Just throw what Tek [Jason Varitek] called and see what happens.
"Now, obviously going through this a couple times, I'm a little more mature. I understand what I'm trying to throw. I feel like I pitch a little more."
It is May 10, and Jon Lester is 5-0. Saturday afternoon, 6-0 Clay Buchholz takes on the Blue Jays. The one time he has faced them this season, they managed two hits in seven scoreless innings. If they do as much first-pitch swinging against Buchholz as they did against Lester, they might be lucky to get that many.
When Lester and Buchholz are dealing, whatever mess the Sox might find themselves in can disappear in a hurry. Lester held the line, the Sox scored four times in the seventh to break it open, and "Dirty Water" was the music of the night. The encore is scheduled to begin at 1:35 p.m.