After striking out Alex Rodriguez with a hard slider for the first out of the sixth inning Sunday night, Red Sox lefty Jon Lester took the throw back from catcher Victor Martinez and emphatically snapped it out of the air, clearly pumped up that he had righted a wrong.
Two innings earlier, Lester had served up a home run to Rodriguez that cut Boston’s lead at the time to 6-2.
By getting the Yankees slugger in a big spot in the sixth, Lester had put that behind him and was well on his way.
And with seven strong innings in a 9-3 victory over New York, Lester had done the same for his team, erasing the sting of consecutive losses to the Yankees by a combined score of 24-6. It was a clutch effort that provides further support for those involved with the “Jon Lester for Red Sox Ace” campaign.
Not that he is concerned with earning any labels.
"Regardless of what the team does the day before or the week before, I’m determined to go out and pitch well,” said Lester, who yielded just four hits and struck out seven. "We only get to work every five days so it’s important for us to go out and do our job."
On Sunday Lester’s job involved more than just another start. He was saddled with scraping the Sox off the floor after they had been trampled by the Yanks, and carrying them to a much-needed win.
He set the tone by retiring nine of the first 10 men he faced and not allowing a runner to reach second through the first three innings. By that time Boston had a 6-0 lead, and Lester had a game plan — throw strikes, let them hit it and trust your defense.
That strategy of not pitching around anyone led to two solo homers in the fourth, when Lester first grooved one to Nick Swisher on a 3-2 pitch and then tossed a 2-0 fastball to Rodriguez, both of which were hit a long way.
"I’m not gonna just start throwing stuff up there to pitch around them," Lester said of his mindset after falling behind Swisher and Rodriguez. “I got back to [getting ahead] after that."
He did indeed, limiting the Yankees to just one hit over the final three frames and leaving after fanning Brett Gardner on his 102nd pitch. Aside from the two home runs, no New York player reached second base against Lester.
It is looking more and more as if the Red Sox handing the ball to Josh Beckett on Opening Day was more symbolic than anything. With all due respect to Beckett, many felt that Lester was the best pitcher on a good staff anyway, and his recent stretch has done nothing to quell such opinions. In fact, with Beckett struggling mightily, Lester has become the go-to guy amid an inconsistent start for the staff.
Since three rough outings to start the year, Lester is now 3-0 with a 0.98 ERA in four starts. He has settled into the groove his teammates expected to eventually see.
"The last three outings he has thrown have been pretty close to perfect," said third baseman Adrian Beltre. “He has the stuff to do that every time, so we expect him to be doing it."
Expectations such as those often fall on aces. Aces often pull through, despite the pressure. Such was the case with Jon Lester against the Yankees on Sunday night.