Commentary

Jon Lester has uplifting performance

Left-hander keeps Red Sox in first, shows he can still be on top of his game

Updated: July 24, 2013, 6:51 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- A scout from another big-league team was still raving Tuesday about Tampa Bay lefty Matt Moore's command performance the night before against the Red Sox.

"If that's the way he's going to be the rest of the season, forget about it," the scout said of Moore's two-hit shutout. "If he's even 80 percent of that, forget it."

No one expected Jon Lester to match Moore, who at 24 and in his second full season in the big leagues is threatening the reign of teammate David Price, who starts Wednesday, as the American League's best left-hander.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesJon Lester was less reliant on his cutter Tuesday, a change that helped beat the Rays.
What the Red Sox wanted from Lester is what they got from him -- a strong sampling of how good he is when he is at the top of his game. Lester went about it a different way Tuesday night, throwing only a handful of his signature cutters, a pitch that had lost some of its dependability. When he did throw his cutter, he did so early in the count, while leaning on his changeup and curveball later.

It worked beautifully, due in no small part to a fastball that nearly touched 96 and lost none of its sting through the course of the night.

"That's probably the most powerful he has been all year," said manager John Farrell, who opined that the extra time off Lester was given since his last start before the All-Star break -- a full nine days -- paid dividends. Lester struck out eight, walked none and yielded solo home runs by Wil Myers and Evan Longoria -- two pretty fair hitters -- and nothing more in a 6-2 win that kept the Red Sox in front of the oncoming Rays in the AL East.

There would be no changing of the guard on Lester's watch. The Rays, who had won six in a row and 21 of their last 25, began the night a half-game behind the Sox and could have taken over the top spot, which has been occupied by Boston for the last 58 days. Instead, they fell a game and a half back, the Sox needing just a split of the series' last two games to maintain their lead when the Rays leave town.

"The standings where they are, and knowing we're only in July, this was a big game for us tonight," Farrell said. "For him to come out and respond and take control of the game the way he did was very encouraging."

Particularly on a day when Clay Buchholz dropped the startling news that while there is no timetable for his return, Dr. James Andrews suggested a best-case scenario of "four or five more starts" this season, meaning Buchholz might not be back until September.

Given how fluid -- and confounding -- Buchholz's situation has been, the possibility exists that he was offering the most conservative scenario. But it underscores how important it is to the Red Sox that Lester emerge, finally and unremittingly, from the prolonged funk that has sent his season spiraling after a terrific start.

"I said it three or four months ago," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said, "that we're going to go to the World Series and win it with him.

"Can't do it without him."

And Lester can't do it without making some alterations to his reliance on the cutter. Farrell said the pitch has lacked some of the power and late movement that has made it such an important part of Lester's repertoire, and he has been burned on the pitch too many times this season, especially on two-strike counts. Had he become too predictable?

"I don't think so," he said. "Andy Pettitte has done it 19 years. I'm not going to shy away from my strength. That just defeats the purpose of me going out there, if I'm going to throw like Jamie Moyer, a fastball-changeup guy.

"You've got to be able to throw all four or five pitches and mix them up. I can't just throw fastball-cutter. You constantly have to make adjustments against different teams.

"There are going to be nights where I have a wipeout slider-cutter -- here it is. There are going to be nights where I'm battling with it."

And there will be nights like Tuesday, when the Rays' right-handed hitters saw a steady diet of changeups and curves when Lester went off-speed. And he threw both pitches for strikes: seven of 10 curveballs for strikes to righties, 12 of 13 changeups. He had 11 swings-and-misses Tuesday, and the eight strikeouts matched his season high and were his most since he fanned eight Orioles on June 16.

Saltalamacchia mentioned that Lester has pitched through a hip issue which first flared in June. He has yet to miss a turn and remains on pace for his usual 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings. No small achievement.

"He's a guy that's a workhorse," Saltalamacchia said. "He's never skipped a start, never missed a start. He's had some pain with the hip. I think a little bit of time off was good for him. "We're going to need him the last go-round."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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