CHICAGO -- The day after Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli misplayed that pop fly in the canvas-colored roof of Tropicana Field last week, a play that loomed large in John Lackey losing to Tampa Bay, Napoli heard about it, loudly. From Lackey. Nothing personal, mind you.
That's how these Red Sox roll, Jon Lester said.
"Nobody is safe," Lester said. "The guys in this club, you come in here every day, you've got Pedey getting on Will, you've got Will getting on me, me getting on Clay."
"It doesn't matter what you did," Lester said. "Nap was like, '[Expletive], man, it's not like I missed it on purpose.' Guys know that. Nobody takes anything personally, and guys play hard. That's all you can expect. I know all those guys, 1 through 9, are going to bust their butt for me, regardless of how they feel, regardless of what they're doing at the plate, regardless if they play good defense or not. I know every pitch they're with me and I'm with them. That's the first hurdle to get over to become a unit, to be a team."
The last time Lester pitched, the Sox were in the midst of a stretch in which they'd lost 9 of 11 games. They scored eight runs for him in the third inning, he held the Rays to two runs over seven innings, and voila, the start of a five-game winning streak entering Lester's start Monday night against the Chicago White Sox in U.S. Cellular Field.
Lester failed in his bid to become the first Red Sox left-hander to win his first seven decisions since Rogelio Moret went 10-0 in 1973, taking the loss in a 6-4 defeat.
Notably, Lester is 4-0 with a 1.94 ERA in starts after a Red Sox loss, the definition of a stopper.
"We went through a tough stretch, and that's baseball, we're going to have another one," Lester said. "It's not going to be all roses the whole season. We all know that. But everybody's having fun. We all know if we play well, we're going to have a good chance to win.
"Because of where we play, sometimes guys lose sight of that. I think that's normal. It's human nature. You've got a lot of expectations here. If you don't succeed, you're going to have a lot of [media] down our butts, plus the fans. But it can't be the end of the world every time you lose, and 'woo-hoo' every time you win. We'd go nuts. People would be going crazy."
The beauty of this team, Lester said, is that it is full of players who have been through the grind, understand it and can maintain perspective, and have fun while doing it.
"It's not 162 seasons," he said. "It's a 162-game season. We're here from April 1 until hopefully the end of October. We all know there are going to be those periods, no matter how hard we hit, no matter how good we pitch, we're going to lose. But if you can minimize those times and stay on an even keel, you're going to be OK."
The contrast to last year, for both Lester and the Red Sox, could not be more striking. The Sox in 2012 finished in last place for only the second time since 1932. Lester, who had vowed to put the crushing disappointment of the previous September behind him, instead staggered through his worst season in the big leagues, a career-high 4.82 ERA translating into a 9-14 record.
At 29, the left-hander came into this season not only faced with questions about whether he could regain top-of-the-rotation status, but whether the Red Sox would choose to keep him beyond this season. The club holds a $13 million option for the 2014 season.
"I think there was that added, I don't want to say pressure, but that incentive to prove people wrong," he said. "The motivation to say, 'Hey, this is not me.' I think going through a year like last year humbles you. Sometimes, you've got to fail in order to succeed.
"When you have success, have success, have success and all of a sudden somebody hits you in the jaw, you go, 'Whoa. Timeout. Let me step back. I'm getting too big for my britches here. I need to pull back the reins.'"
For Lester, that meant getting back to basics.
"You never want to go through something like that to realize those things, but having a season like that makes you realize I needed to get back to the basics of fastball command, just getting that back down in the bottom of the zone, changing speeds and all the stuff we talked about in spring training,'' he said. "It sounds really, really easy when you say it, but it's not."
There are so many indicators that reflect the improvements Lester has made. Through his first nine starts, he has allowed one run to be scored in the first inning. (He allowed three runs in Monday's loss.) Last season in 33 starts, he gave up 21 first-inning runs. The percentage of home runs per fly ball is down to 7.8 percent, the lowest it has been since 2008. His walk percentage is down to a career-low 2.26 per nine innings.
But nothing so far is more striking than the difference in effectiveness with his four-seamed fastball. Velocity is about the same; the angle, vastly improved. Entering Monday, batters were hitting .167 with a slugging percentage of .192 against his four-seamer, with two doubles and no home runs. Last season, they hit .333 with a .667 SGP, with 15 doubles and 17 home runs. Right-handed hitters were batting .177 while slugging .210 this season; last year, it was .358/.715.
"It's the plane in which it's travelling through the strike zone," manager John Farrell said. "He's consistently more downhill rather than being on a flat plane as he was the better part of the last two years. The thing that sticks out to me the last two years are the number of doubles. Those were on fastballs that [mostly] were flat and over the plate, where 92 to 94 doesn't play to that velocity.
"He's doing a very good job of throwing the ball downhill. He's been able to use his sinker more. Even on fastball counts, you're seeing more hard contact on the ground rather than driven in the gap."
There may be an element of luck involved. Through his first nine starts this season, the batting average of balls in play (BABIP) allowed by Lester was .246, well below last season's .312 and his career mark of .298, so there's some likelihood of more balls falling safely for hits. But the overall picture is more in line with the Lester who dominated AL hitters in his first four full seasons than the pitcher encountering significant struggles for the first time last season.
"The biggest thing is experience," Lester said. "I've basically experienced everything. You don't have the unknown. I've had starts where I've given up nine runs in three innings. Then the next start I've gone out and thrown seven shutout innings. I know the good and the bad.
"What has changed for me is when the game is done, I don't take it home. When you're 24, 25, it stays with you 'til the next morning. You're beating your head on the wall, why did I throw that pitch? I used to not be able to sleep.
"Now it's like, 'OK you live and die by every pitch, but when it's all said and done I can't change it. I can't go back and say, why did I throw that two-seamer to Desmond Jennings right there? I can't change anything, so why beat yourself up for it? Move on."
Regardless of Monday's outcome, Lester said, he will reflect on it the next day, then move on to his next start. It is a guiding principle for him, moving on. Don't get the call on a pitch? Move on to the next one, and instead of glowering on the mound, ask the umpire after the inning (which is what he did last week in the Trop). Miss location and walk a batter? Move on and focus on the next pitch. Win or lose today? Move on to tomorrow, and then the tomorrow after that.
Keep it basic, remember it's supposed to be fun, and trust in your teammates.
"When our offense gets that swagger, where guys 1 through 9 are grinding out at-bats, it doesn't matter who's pitching for us," he said. "You try to go out there and keep it close, because we're going to score a bunch of runs."
And if one of them should happen to miss a popup along the way? Look forward to them hearing about it the next day.