The label doesn't fit like it was supposed to when it was pinned on him in the 2008 postseason, or when he injected himself in the 2010 Cy Young race, or when he became Boston's annual opening day starter.
But when the Red Sox really needed one Monday night in San Francisco -- where he was awaiting the arrival of his teammates after crossing the continent a day ahead of them -- Jon Lester looked like an ace.
The Sox were tired after a rare gameday flight followed a late night with the Yankees. The bullpen was particularly strained, having worked 11 innings over the weekend and 21 over the previous week. And the team was generally looking haggard, having dropped three straight series and seven of 11 games.
But in his left hand, Lester carried the antidote for all of those ailments -- delivering 8.1 efficient, effective, and (in many ways at this stage) essential innings to take advantage of the early support of the Boston bats and pitch the Sox a 7-0 win over the Giants in the first of their six-game trip along the California coast.
The lower half of the Sox order struck in its first time through against Tim Lincecum, staking Lester to a 3-0 lead by the time he took the mound for the second -- and not once the rest of the night was there reason to worry that wouldn't be enough, based on the way the southpaw was dealing from the start. He got through the first on just six pitches, didn't allow a hit or a baserunner until the fourth inning, was only at 61 pitches through five, and it wasn't until the sixth that he faced more than four batters in a frame.
Even then, when the Giants coupled a hit with one of his two walks, they didn't get a man to third. They wouldn't all night.
Lester ultimately scattered six hits, though they were all singles. And while he finished with only three strikeouts, his consistency and command inside the strike zone kept San Francisco's hitters off balance. He started 18 of 24 batters with a first-pitch strike, which at 75 percent represents a significant improvement over his season (60 percent) and career (57 percent) numbers, and that aggressiveness helped limit the quality of contact.
So did his stuff. Lester recently found success by moving away from his bread-and-butter cutter, but Monday night the bite was back on that pitch, so it once again became his preferred breaking ball. The key to it all was -- and always has been -- Lester's ability to locate his fastball, but if he can establish the heater while also having the confidence and capability to execute the cutter, curveball, and changeup in his arsenal, his unpredictability is a weapon unto itself.
It looked that way Monday, and while the opponent must obviously be taken into account -- the Giants are 25th of baseball's 30 teams in runs scored -- Lester's 12 ground-ball outs were tied for his second-most this season, it was just the third time this season he hasn't allowed an extra-base hit, and his game score (as calculated by Bill James) was his fourth-best of the year, at 72.
Two of his three better performances came prior to May 11, but, encouragingly, the other came just four starts earlier, when Lester threw seven shutout innings at the Orioles. That speaks to his resurgence, which has seen him compile a 2.52 ERA since the All-Star break, and beyond that has seen him pitch into the seventh inning in eight of his last 10 outings.
With that his ERA is down to 4.09, which is as low as it's been since June 10, and that justifies the growing sense that Lester is again becoming the pitcher he was earlier this season, when his excellence over April and May were among the primary reasons for the Sox' hot start. Whether it's the result of a strategic adjustment, finding a fix for a mechanical flaw, or the extra rest built in to what became a nine-day break around the All-Star Game, suddenly Lester looks again like a guy the Sox can hand the ball in a playoff game. And do so confidently.
He's got the right attitude, too. After inducing a double play to squander San Francisco's last-ditch threat in the eighth, cameras caught him trying to convince John Farrell to let him finish the game as he left the field. The manager let him try before pulling him when two singles followed a fly to center. But by then he'd long proven his point.
The Sox needed a win. His teammates needed him to pick them up. He wanted to finish what he started. And he pitched like he understood the urgency to all of it.
Just like an ace would.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||1-for-4, R, 2 K: Not sure whether or not it's a skill, per say, but Ellsbury has perfected the act of reaching on catcher's interference. Pete Abraham has the details after the center fielder prolonged the second-inning rally.|
|Shane Victorino, RF||3-for-4, RBI, 2B: He delivered the first of the Sox' four two-out RBIs with a single, and had three hits against Lincecum -- all batting from the right side.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-5, R, K, 3B: His second triple of the season was his second extra-base hit in the past two weeks, and spared him from waking up for just the second time this season with an average below .290. (He was hitting .289 on April 13.)|
|David Ortiz, 1B||0-for-5: He told WEEI.com that, at 37, he was particularly tired and sore after the gameday flight. That might've been a factor in his hitless night, but it didn't hurt the Sox in his glove work at first base. He'll likely rest Tuesday.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||2-for-4, 2 R, RBI, BB, 2B, 2 K: His team-leading 34th double is his seventh in his past 10 games, and over an eight-game hitting streak he's got a .991 OPS. The Giants' Buster Posey is the reigning NL MVP, but since the All-Star break, Saltalamacchia's OPS (.802-.614) is significantly better.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||3-for-4, 2 R, RBI, BB: He returned to his native Bay Area, which meant a chance to see his newborn baby girl -- so call it Dad Strength: Since returning from paternity leave, the first-time papa is hitting .462 with a .533/.615/1.149 slash line in 10 games.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-5, R, RBI, K: His first night with Xander Bogaerts backing him up included a mashed wall-ball double. He also made an error, but Drew is playing way too well right now to cede his position completely.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||0-for-1, RBI, 2 BB: Batting before the pitcher, he was 0-for-0 after his first three plate appearances, lifting a sacrifice fly before two intentional walks.|
|Jon Lester, P||0-for-3, K: When you're now 0-for-28 in your career, a night where you only strikeout once and manage to force the opposition to throw 14 pitches counts as a victory.|
|Jon Lester, SP||8.1 IP, 6 H, 2 BB, 3 K: The Giants battled him with 22 foul balls, and Lester induced only 10 swings and misses among his 77 strikes (12.9 percent, compared to his season average of 14 percent), but the lefty prevailed.|
|Brandon Workman, RP||0.2 IP, 2 K: Summoned when Lester put two aboard in the ninth, Farrell brought him in hoping to avoid a laborious circus. Workman did his job, striking out both men he faced.|
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