BOSTON — It might be time to pencil Jon Lester in as the Red Sox’ Game 1 starter.
The Red Sox’ focus is still on locking up a playoff spot and Clay Buchholz could very well prove down the stretch that he’s the ace that he was before landing on the disabled list. But Lester has the look and feel of a legitimate No. 1 starter right now despite a rough patch in the middle of the season.
“What he’s done since the All-Star break has been consistent with how he started the season, and that’s been a well-above-average pitcher, a front-line starter, which that’s who Jon Lester is,” John Farrell said following Saturday’s game.
Lester shut down the Yankees for eight innings Saturday to earn his 14th victory of the year. He gave up just one run on three hits while striking out five and walking two. The left-hander threw 115 pitches (79 strikes) and remained in total control as the Red Sox cruised to a 5-1 win.
“Today was probably an example of the bulk of his career that we’ve talked about,” Farrell said. “He was powerful. He had good command inside the strike zone. He pitched in effectively to both lefties and righties. Just a very solid — a very good — eight innings of work today.”
The Red Sox have now won 16 of their last 20 games, and while the offense has more than held up its end of the bargain, the starting pitching has been very solid throughout the second half. The effort has been anchored by Lester, who has shown flashes of his 2008-2011 form since the All-Star break.
“Very similar,” Farrell said when asked how today’s Lester compares with the 2008 version. “When you think of the velocity that’s in the mid 90s now pretty consistently, it just makes his cutter that much more effective where hitters have to commit early to address the velocity. But just the consistency, the ability to repeat his delivery, put the ball on the ground and get strikeouts; that combination is a very good one.”
Lester has gone eight innings in back-to-back outings and at least six innings in his last eight starts. On Saturday, the left-hander reached the 200-inning plateau for the fifth time in his career, proving that he’s as durable as ever despite previous questions about his true identity as a pitcher.
While Lester started the season on a high note, going 6-0 in his first nine starts, 2012’s debacle still hung over his head. So when Lester stumbled in late June and early July, there were questions about whether or not he would ever get back to what once made him so successful and so consistent. Now, it’s a matter of how long he can keep the good times rolling.
“It’s not uncommon for power pitchers to really hit their stride in the second half of the season and he’s an example of that,” Farrell said. “His delivery becomes that much more efficient and he repeats it more consistently. And with that rhythm comes power and that’s I think what we’ve all seen in Jon over the course of the time here.”
Lester has posted a quality start in each of his last eight outings — a stretch in which he owns a 1.86 ERA. It’s the second-longest quality start streak of his career, and he has 11 quality starts since July 13. Lester’s ERA has improved from 4.58 to 3.75 since July 13.
We could point to any number of statistics to prove that the vintage version of Jon Lester is back. The most obvious, most telling and most encouraging sign, however, is the overall mound presence that the veteran has displayed for the better part of two months. Lester’s demeanor is that of a guy who knows he’s absolutely dealing, and his confidence appears to be growing each time he takes the ball.
“When Jon is executing pitches, it gives him clarity on the mound, and what I mean by the clarity is that there’s no indecision with pitch selection,” Farrell said. “He’s got confidence to go to a given pitch when he needs to get a strike, whether that’s a four-seamer down and away to a righty or whatever the moment might be. But it’s more about him having confidence in his pitches. That’s what reduces the frustration with him and allows him to maybe not carry the previous pitch into the next one and that frustration is eliminated. That’s where he’s been for pretty much the whole year with the exception of that month stretch where things were a little hit and miss for him.”
Lester said after Saturday’s game that he doesn’t focus on streaks, getting on rolls or anything like that. Instead, he subscribes to the cliche “one start at a time” philosophy. It’s been a successful approach recently — as boring as it may sound — and it’s right in line with how this group of Red Sox does business.
The Red Sox’ magic number is down to six following Saturday’s win. Once that number reaches zero, Farrell can really start focusing on his October rotation. The name at the top of the list could be Lester’s.