NEW YORK — Jon Lester needed to be nails Saturday. The left-hander was exactly that, holding the Boston Red Sox together long enough for Mike Napoli to launch a go-ahead home run in the ninth inning.
Lester allowed just one unearned run over eight innings as the Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees 2-1 at Yankee Stadium. It was a big-time performance by Lester, who elevated his game against Masahiro Tanaka — winner of the first battle between the two aces on April 22.
“In knowing who we were going against tonight, that was going to be needed,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Lester’s performance. “The one thing that you’ve seen over time is Jon’s maturity and to stay in the moment and make key pitches with men in scoring position.”
Lester certainly has matured over the course of his nine seasons in Boston. He’s had ups and downs, but, for the most part, he’s been a damn good pitcher since breaking into the majors with the Red Sox in 2006. Thus, clutch performances against other No. 1 starters shouldn’t be too surprising anymore despite some occasional hiccups — like when Lester was touched up by the Yankees on April 22.
“He’s an ace. He goes up against their aces — (Chicago’s Chris) Sale, (Detroit’s Max) Scherzer, it doesn’t really matter. He’s going to go toe-to-toe with those guys,” catcher David Ross said after the game. “And he’s really learning to pitch even more with not having to throw 97 (mph). There’s nights when he has 92, 94, 91, and he’s moving, cutting and sinking the ball, forcing them away, (using his) breaking ball. He’s pitching, and I think his maturity has come a long way.”
There were times Saturday when it looked like the Yankees would break through, yet Lester bore down as he’s frequently done this season.
New York’s lone run came in the third inning, when things could have been much worse. The Yankees had two on with no outs after Stephen Drew committed an error and Lester hit Yangervis Solarte on the foot with a pitch. Brett Gardner bunted both runners up a station, and Lester escaped the inning with just one run allowed by getting Derek Jeter and Jacoby Ellsbury to put the ball on the ground.
The Yankees also threatened in the sixth inning by producing three singles. Ross alleviated some of the pressure by throwing out Gardner on an attempted steal following a leadoff hit, and Lester retired Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran to exit the inning unscathed.
Gardner again reached to lead off the bottom of the eighth, but a filthy double play started by Dustin Pedroia changed the complexion of the inning. Pedroia dove before making an impressive backhanded flip out of his glove to Drew.
In short, Lester was Lester, which meant the Red Sox had a good chance of walking away victorious despite facing the Yankees’ best pitcher. Napoli ensured Boston didn’t ruin the solid effort from its top dog by launching a solo homer off Tanaka in the ninth to break a 1-1 tie.
“We rely heavily on those guys, especially when we’re not swinging the bats like we want to,” Ross said Boston’s starting pitchers. ” … If you get a loss out of a performance like that, it kind of can be a big swing in the negative way. Luckily, we got that positive swing and a good feeling. Hopefully we can carry this into tomorrow.”
Lester improved his ERA to 2.92 while earning his ninth victory of the season. It’s possible he could make an All-Star push despite having seven losses, although producing huge performances like Saturday’s is much more important to the Red Sox’s cause.