Commentary

Jon Lester aces out Max Scherzer

Red Sox left-hander lays cards on table, comes up winner against Tigers' best

Updated: September 4, 2013, 2:40 AM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Detroit Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer was attempting to become this season's first 20-game winner, but the Boston Red Sox and pitcher Jon Lester weren't fazed at all.

Instead of reaching that plateau, Scherzer suffered only his second loss of the season as the Red Sox defeated the Tigers, 2-1, Tuesday night at Fenway Park. Scherzer's record fell to 19-2, while Lester improved to 13-8 in a classic pitchers' duel.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaJon Lester, who showed more emotion than he has all season, reacts after an out in the seventh.
"This series, we know we're going up against a very good team," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "We knew coming into tonight it had the makings of a pitching duel; it turned out to be."

Lester worked seven innings, allowing one run on eight hits with no walks and a season-high nine strikeouts. The left-hander tossed 111 pitches (81 strikes).

Scherzer also worked seven innings (plus two batters in the eighth) and allowed two runs on nine hits with three walks and eight strikeouts. He threw 111 pitches (70 strikes).

Lester has been the Red Sox rotation's best stopper this season. Boston is 11-2 when he starts after a loss and he's 9-1 with a 2.68 ERA in those starts. The Red Sox dropped the series opener Monday to the Tigers as starter John Lackey suffered a 3-0 loss.

Since Aug. 8, Lester has produced six quality starts, posting a 1.71 ERA in that stretch, which matches the second-longest streak of his career for the third time.

Lester is at his best when he pitches aggressively and he was able to accomplish that Tuesday night against a top-notch lineup. Having his ace-like repertoire intact for the final month of the regular season and into the playoffs is important for the Red Sox.

On Tuesday, his fastball was clocked in the high 90s. His cutter was nasty and effective and he was able to mix in his curveball as well.

Farrell and the rest of the club have enjoyed Lester's return to dominance since the All-Star break. With the exception of one start, when he allowed six runs on 11 hits in 4 1/3 innings against Arizona on Aug. 2 at Fenway, Lester has been at his best.

"Everyone in our dugout feels it when he goes to the mound, and that's not to slight anybody, but Jon has stepped up in those games when we've needed to get back on a winning track and he's done just that," Farrell said.

Lester always has been an intense competitor. Even though he said after the win that he wasn't focused on the opposing pitcher, he was more emotional than he has been at any point this season.

"I've always worn my emotions on my sleeve. It's who I am," Lester said. "I'm not going to change that -- good, bad or indifferent. If I'm happy, confident and feeling good about myself, you're going to know. If things are going so well, you're going to know about it too. But that doesn't change my mindset as far as what we're trying to do."

Lester said it wasn't necessarily the opposing pitcher that had him pumped up. Instead, it's the time of the year that has him wired.

"I think every game when you get down to this time of the season means something," Lester said. "Obviously, we all knew who we were facing and he's had a great year."

Lester said he can't worry about the opposing pitcher. His job is to formulate a game plan against a potent offense and execute it. It sounds clichéd but it needs to be that simple. When Lester can simplify things and minimize the damage, good things are going to happen. That was the case Wednesday night.

"We recognize the time of the year and who we're going up against," Farrell said. "Is this the potential of seeing somebody further down the road? We felt like we needed to put together a solid game here tonight and he did it. He set the tone right from the start of the game. In that seventh inning, he probably knew that was going to be his last inning and he made a couple of key pitches."

There were two key moments in the game for Lester. The first came in the fifth inning. After Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks committed a one-out error, Lester allowed consecutive two-out singles to load the bases for the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera.

"Obviously, I don't want to be in that situation with him up," Lester said. "Really, the biggest thing right there is not giving up four [runs]. He's the best hitter on the planet and you're really trying to minimize damage."

Lester fell behind 2-0, then had the count 2-1 before he was able to work his cutter up and inside on Cabrera, who grounded out to shortstop to end the inning and the threat.

[+] EnlargeKoji Uehara
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaKoji Uehara was perfect again, recording his 25th consecutive scoreless inning and his 17th save.
"Obviously, that doesn't happen too often with him but I'll take it," Lester said.

While pitching was the focus Tuesday night, one shouldn't overlook the offensive heroics of Middlebrooks, who repaid his debt to his pitcher in the home half of the fifth inning. With two outs and runners on second and third thanks to a ground-rule double by Stephen Drew, Middlebrooks provided a two-run single to give the Red Sox a 2-1 lead.

"It was a big lift for all of us, including himself," Farrell said. "Over the last four or five games things haven't gone as smooth for him at the plate as they did when he first came up [from Triple-A], so it was a big hit in the moment."

It was a big relief and confidence builder for the young third baseman.

"It means more than you guys know," Middlebrooks said.

Boston still held a 2-1 lead when Lester exited after seven innings; the game now belonged to the Red Sox's bullpen.

Farrell knew he wanted to match up against the heart of Detroit's batting order and the game plan was successful. Relievers Brandon Workman, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa combined to handle a scoreless eighth inning, and closer Koji Uehara worked a perfect 1-2-3 ninth to record his 17th save.

Uehara has retired 21 consecutive batters and extended his scoreless streak to 25 innings. It was an all-around solid pitching performance by the Red Sox. Lester set the tone and everything fell in line en route to the win.

"The guys that have come out of the bullpen -- Workman, Bres, Taz and Koji -- they've been on a good run themselves," Farrell said. "We've talked a lot about our starting rotation, but the bullpen on this homestand has been outstanding."

At some point this season, Lester and Scherzer could face each other again. If they do, it will mean it's October baseball. It also could mean a trip to the World Series will hang in the balance. If that happens, Lester and Red Sox will know they can beat the best.

"He was on, bro," Red Sox DH David Ortiz said of Lester. "He was really good."

Lester was better than the best and that could prove crucial come October.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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