BOSTON — Take a good, long look. Jon Lester is at his peak.
The Boston Red Sox left-hander can stroll into next week’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Target Field in Minnesota and tell everyone unequivocally he’s having the best season of his illustrious nine-year career. Lester closed out his excellent first half with another sparkling performance Thursday as Boston ended its 10-game homestand with a 4-3 walk-off win over the Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park.
Lester didn’t factor into the decision because closer Koji Uehara surrendered a two-run homer to Conor Gillaspie in the ninth inning and the Red Sox needed extra frames to squeak out their second consecutive walk-off victory. But Lester’s stellar mound work further showed why the Red Sox need to use the upcoming All-Star break as an opportunity to pursue a contract extension, even if the free agent-to-be is more focused on this season than what lies ahead.
“I’m not here to make statements. I’m here to win baseball games. That’s all I’m worried about right now,” Lester said. “The personal stuff will take care of itself. That’s the farthest from my mind right now. I don’t hold any grudges against people. That doesn’t motivate me to pitch better. I’m just a competitor.
“I want to pitch well regardless if I’m a free agent-to-be or if I’ve got years on my contract. That doesn’t motivate me. What motivates me is winning baseball games and winning World Series and doing that sort of thing. The other stuff will take care of itself.”
Lester struck out 12 and didn’t issue a single walk Thursday while tossing seven innings of one-run ball. It was the most K’s he’s ever had in a start in which he didn’t walk anyone, and it marked the first time a Red Sox pitcher racked up 12 strikeouts without doling out a free pass while allowing no more than one run since Pedro Martinez accomplished the feat in May 2003. That Pedro guy, like Lester, was pretty good.
Thursday’s 12-strikeout performance was Lester’s third double-digit strikeout game this season and the 20th of his career, though it’s his command of the strike zone that continues to separate this season from his other eight.
Lester has issued 2.02 walks per nine innings this season following Thursday’s walk-free effort, which bumped his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 4.62. His best strikeout-to-walk ratio before this season was 3.52 in 2009, and his career mark before Thursday’s start was 2.58.
“It’s something I’ve always tried to improve on throughout my career,” Lester said. “Strikeouts are nice, but I’d rather look up there and see no walks any day of the week.”
Lester enters the break having allowed just five earned runs over his last six starts, a span of 44 2/3 innings (1.01 ERA). The lefty has just a 9-7 record because of situations like Thursday’s and a frequent lack of run support, but he never has looked this impressive.