If only mulligans were part of baseball.
Just as one bad hole can ruin a golfer’s entire round, one bad inning can mean the difference between winning and losing for a starting pitcher. Just ask Jon Lester.
The Royals eventually locked up a 5-1 victory Thursday, as Boston’s bats couldn’t solve Bruce Chen, who tossed 7 2/3 shutout innings before handing the keys over to Luke Hochevar. It was a lackluster performance by the Red Sox’ offense, which shouldn’t go unnoticed, but Lester at least gave the club one positive to take away from the defeat. Beyond the opening frame, Lester was fantastic and kept the Red Sox in the game, which is encouraging given how badly he got lit up by the Diamondbacks in his last start.
Lester was torched to the tune of six runs on 11 hits over 4 1/3 innings in his last start against the D-Backs on Friday. This time around, it looked as if Lester was in for a similar fate, as the Royals posted three runs in the first inning while the left-hander threw 41 high-stress pitches. But to Lester’s credit, he kept his composure, didn’t let the outing snowball and ended up lasting seven innings. If nothing else, the effort gave the Red Sox’ bullpen a welcomed breather.
“I felt good. Obviously, long first [with] a lot of pitches, but to be able to somehow grind a way through it and get through seven [innings] is big for our bullpen,” Lester said. “It’s just some of the stuff I’ve talked about through the season. You’ve just got to find a way when you have those outings where the first couple just aren’t going the way you want them, you’ve got to find a way to get through six or seven [innings], maybe eight and keep your team in the ballgame. I was able to do that.”
Lester allowed three runs — although only one was earned — on two hits and two walks in the first inning Thursday. He gave up just two hits over six shutout innings the rest of the way, and he exited after a 121-pitch effort that was both gritty and effective, albeit not perfect. In other words, it was more in line with his three encouraging starts prior to his outing against Arizona.
“The last outing, like I said, I was just up in the zone. My stuff was the same [Thursday], but any time you’re up that consistently with big league hitters, you’re going to get hurt and that’s what happened against Arizona,” Lester said. “But tonight, I got the ball back down in the zone and it was probably the best curveball I’ve had in a long time, which was nice to be able to feel and nice to be able to see. Just build off this one. There’s some really good positives in there and just go back out there in five days and try to do the same thing — just not lose.”
The loss is ultimately what matters, of course, but it’s no secret that the Red Sox absolutely need Lester to pitch up to his capability. The problem has been figuring out where exactly his ceiling lies, and Thursday’s start restored some faith that Lester is capable of digging down deep and harnessing the fight that we saw during his stretch of consistency from 2008 to 2011.
“I’ve always been emotional,” said Lester, who was animated at times Thursday. “I’ve been that way since a little kid. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and it gets me in trouble sometimes, but that’s who I am and I’m not going to change.”
Lester doesn’t need to change. He just needs to cut down on the number of bad tee shots.