BOSTON -- Billy Wagner had heard about Jon Lester, how good he was and what kind of stuff he threw, but he had never really seen him pitch before, other than casually on TV. Since Wagner joined the team a little more than a month ago, his opinion has shifted significantly.
"There's not really a better lefty than him," Wagner said. "Johan [Santana] is not as overall talented as him. Not to take anything away from Johan."
Wagner -- a former teammate of Santana, one of the best lefties in the game -- said Lester's ability to throw in the mid to upper 90s, with the cutter and a good breaking ball, makes him the best southpaw in the game. And after Thursday's 3-0 win, in which Lester was pitching for the first time since being struck by a liner against the Yankees on Friday, Wagner had no doubts.
"If [his knee] hurts, I hope it continues to hurt because he looked great," Wagner said.
It was just six days ago that Melky Cabrera's liner popped off Lester's right leg, forcing him to the ground, writhing in pain. The ball just missed his kneecap by about an inch. Lester needed help getting off the field, a bruise swelling just inside his right quadriceps.
By the next day, the team seemed optimistic; a side session Monday relieved fears and on Thursday night, Lester shut out the Indians for 6 1/3 innings.
"After my side session, all the questions out there about my knee I really didn't have anymore," he said.
It showed. He allowed two hits and walked one while striking out seven. After the game, Mike Lowell echoed what many were thinking.
"I think it's a relief just to see him pitch," Lowell said.
And even though it was against the Indians -- whose lineup is less than formidable -- Lester's command and his fairly effortless 84-pitch outing impressed teammates.
Even from the bullpen, Daniel Bard could see how well Lester's night was going.
"He looked unbelievable," Bard said. "His stuff was there -- his fastball was in the mid-90s, his cutter was there -- and when he has those two pitches going, he's pretty tough to beat."
Lester will finish the season 15-8 with a 3.41 ERA. He eclipsed the 200-inning mark this season -- the second straight he has thrown more than 200 innings and had at least 15 wins. Since May 31, he has gone 12-3 with a 2.31 ERA. He has pitched so well that the Red Sox reportedly plan on starting him in Game 1 against Anaheim next week.
Bard said that Lester's 15 wins "is a lot less than he deserves. I've blown a couple of his leads late in the game, so that's two right there."
For his part, Lester felt satisfied. He elevated his pitches in the first few innings -- the first six outs were fly outs -- but then settled down, throwing more down in the zone, his seven strikeouts over his last four innings.
"It took me a couple of innings to find that rhythm," Lester said. "Once I did, I felt a better consistency."
For the past four months, Lester has been nothing if not consistent. The team only hopes that continues, starting next week.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com and ESPNBoston.com. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at twitter.com/amyknelson.