Lester had lost all four of his starts since the All-Star break and had done so in all kinds of ways, leaving his last start with leg cramps, flirting with a perfect game in another and watching his defense fail him at times. The Boston skipper knew something had to change.
"Hopefully, [Monday's] the day when he dials one up," Francona said hours before Lester took the mound in Yankee Stadium and did just that.
Lester threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings in a 2-1 victory that gave Boston a series split and kept them at least thinking about an American League East crown.
"Obviously, these guys are at the head of our division, so any way we can get a game and chip away at that lead, it's always good," said Lester, whose effort helped pull the Red Sox within six games of the front-running Yanks.
While the run support that has been virtually non-existent for Lester remained low, he finally got a break in this one. After Jorge Posada led off the seventh with a single, designated hitter Marcus Thames drove a ball into the gap in right-center field. It hit at the top of the wall and bounced back into the field of play, holding Posada at third and Thames at second.
Another few inches and the game would've been tied.
Lester then hit Austin Kearns with a pitch to load the bases with no outs. It looked like a dicey situation, but in fact had set up what may be a defining moment for the Red Sox, if they do indeed make the postseason.
First, Lester struck out Curtis Granderson for the initial out of the inning. Having thrown 99 pitches in temperatures that approached the mid-90s, that was enough for the big southpaw. While he would've liked the challenge of facing the top of the order in a critical situation, he was able to get a perfect seat to catch The Daniel Bard Experience.
Bard entered with a slow jog and then turned to the fastball, throwing it six straight times for strikes to get Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher. Not one pitch was below 98 mph, and New York's biggest threat was over on three consecutive strikeouts with the bases loaded.
The move paid off wonderfully for Francona, who was supremely impressed with both pitchers.
"Tremendous," Francona said of Lester. "He made pitches, he was down, he had movement. … Even in the seventh when he hit Kearns with a cutter, he came back and got Granderson out. It was huge.
"Then to have Bard come in and just be … it was awesome."
Bard did allow a solo homer to Mark Teixeira in the eighth, but that was nothing more than a footnote to his overpowering performance in the seventh. Jonathan Papelbon got the last four outs to make the efforts by the first two stand up.
Bard, too, knew the importance of the situation.
"We did need it," Bard said. "To come in here and split, it's a tough to place to win games, especially for us with all [the pressure] that's put on these games. We've given ourselves a shot. We're within striking distance and that's all you can ask for at this point."
Because of Lester, Bard and Papelbon, the Sox can still think that way. And Francona doesn't need to hear any more questions about the struggles of his All-Star left-hander.