BOSTON — There wasn’t much doubt before. Now, there shouldn’t be any.
Jon Lester turned in another ace-like effort Friday while guiding the Red Sox to a 6-3 victory over the Blue Jays and their first AL East crown since 2007. In the process, Lester made it abundantly clear — through his performance — that he should and almost certainly will take the ball when the Red Sox open up Game 1 of the ALDS.
“He’s pitching as well right now as he has at any time in his career, I think,” manager John Farrell said. “Not only the bottom line performance, but the stuff that he’s thrown, the durability and the stamina that he’s showing. He’s in a very good place right now.”
John Lackey’s performance that sent Boston to the postseason Thursday was very fitting, as the right-hander has experienced a renaissance that, in many ways, embodies what this year’s Red Sox team is all about. Lester’s effort that clinched the AL East on Friday was just as fitting, as the left-hander is one of the few players left from Boston’s 2007 team.
“I think anytime you’ve got a homegrown guy start to finish to the point where we’re at today, to be able to stand on the mound and pitch like he did, it’s a sign of strength,” Farrell said, “It’s a sign of stability, which Jon has been.”
Lester was just a 23-year-old kid still developing into a legitimate major league hurler the last time Boston won the AL East. Now, he’s a 29-year-old veteran who has been put through the wringer and has lived to tell about it.
Lester imploded down the stretch in 2011 during Boston’s epic collapse, and he stumbled through the worst season of his professional career in 2012. This season has been much different. Although Lester went through some struggles in the middle of the year, the lefty has come on strong of late, and he now looks like a front-line starter who’s ready to toe the rubber in Boston’s biggest October contests.
“It’s something I’ve always said, especially when I’ve started off so slow in years past, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Lester said Friday.
Lester will start one more game before the end of the regular season, but he’s enjoyed a strong finish to the year thus far. Lester’s last nine outings have resulted in quality starts. He owns a 1.80 ERA in that span, and he has a 2.43 ERA over his last 13 starts. In that 13-start stretch, Lester’s season ERA has dropped from 4.60 to 3.67.
On Friday, Lester looked determined to secure the AL East. He gave up one run on five hits over seven innings. He struck out eight, walked two and threw 123 pitches — his second-highest pitch count of the season and the fifth-highest of his career. Lester capped his strong outing with a 10-pitch battle against Jose Reyes that ended with Lester painting the outside black with a trademark cutter.
“There was some thought about taking him out after six innings, but he was adamant that he was going back out for the seventh,” Farrell admitted after the game. “On a night when he knocked down his own 100th personal win, he earned that one tonight.”
Lester’s 100th career win — which makes him the 11th pitcher and third left-hander in Red Sox history to accomplish the feat — was just a side note in the Red Sox’ division-clinching victory. However, it’s a testament to his status as one of Boston’s core players.
Expect to see Lester take the ball when the Red Sox kick off their postseason journey on Oct. 4. Anything different would be shocking.