BOSTON — Having already been shut down by Matt Moore, and with games against studs David Price and Jeremy Hellickson looming on the horizon, the Red Sox needed to take advantage of Roberto Hernandez on Tuesday.
By all measures, Hernandez is having the worst season of anyone in the Tampa Bay rotation (5-10, team-high 4.90 ERA entering Tuesday), and with such dominant hurlers surrounding him, a second straight loss would put the Red Sox in a very unfavorable position in a tight division race.
To get the best of Hernandez, however, Boston needed the best from Jon Lester. With Clay Buchholz remaining on the shelf for the foreseeable future, Lester should be the ace of the Red Sox staff, but it has been months since he has been able to string together quality outings with any sort of consistency.
The southpaw shut down San Diego at Fenway on June 3, failing to pick up the win but allowing just one run over seven innings. But he was shelled his next time out, lasting just five innings in an 11-4 loss to the weak-hitting Mariners. He was then serviceable (6 1/3 innings, six hits, three runs) in a hard-luck loss in Oakland before being skipped in the rotation following the All-Star break.
Tuesday night, on 10 days rest, he was finally Jon Lester again.
Lester was his vintage self against the Rays, allowing two solo home runs but nothing more as the Red Sox won 6-2 to even their four-game intradivision series at one game apiece and hold on to sole possession of first place in the American League East.
“You never want to diminish any start,” manager John Farrell said after the game. “But again, where we are in the standings, where they are, knowing we’re only still in July, but this was a big game for us tonight. And for [Lester] to come out and respond and take control of the game like he did, [it's] very encouraging.
“Tonight was probably as powerful as he’s been all year.”
While, at 6 1/3 innings, it was not Lester’s longest outing of the season, it may have been his most efficient, and it was certainly one in which he avoided the pitfalls that plagued him early in the year. Lester has had a tendency of losing hitters after getting ahead in counts. On Tuesday, he did not walk a single batter, finishing with eight strikeouts and zero free passes for just the second time this season. He had also struggled in two-out situations during his earlier outings. On Tuesday, Rays hitters facing Lester with two outs went 1-for-7 with a single and three strikeouts.
Lester mixed up his approach against a Tampa Bay team that hits fastballs well, throwing more off-speed pitches and breaking balls earlier in counts than usual. And the adjustment worked, as the Rays were held to their third-lowest run total in the month of July.
“He’s probably changed up his pitch distribution a little bit, used his changeup a little more, threw his cutter earlier rather than later,” Farrell said. “That was tonight. That’s not a defined game plan. But he was good to his arm side, both with his fastball and his changeup. He’s got that cutter to go to in the event that he needs it get in on those right-handed hitters.”
“I’m not going to shy away from my strengths,” Lester said. “That just defeats the purpose of me going out there and competing if I’m going to throw like a Jamie Moyer, being a fastball-changeup guy. You’ve got to be able to throw all four or five pitches and mix them up. You can’t just obviously go fastball-cutter. We just have to constantly make those adjustments to different teams.”
Lester showed, against baseball’s hottest team, that he is still more than worthy of being considered an elite arm. Now, as the playoff race begins in earnest, the test will be whether or not this success is sustainable.