(Correction: Because of a reporting error, it was misstated in the Red Sox game story in Saturday's Sports section that Sox pitcher Jonathan Papelbon was leading Major League Baseball in games saved. At the time, Jason Isringhausen of the St. Louis Cardinals was the leader.)
ATLANTA -- The Red Sox needed something galvanizing last night, preferably someone, preferably a pitcher. The club landed here at about 4 a.m. yesterday and, upon convening at the park at 4 p.m., learned that Matt Clement's exhausted arm and shoulder would be absent for at least 15 days, the righthander joining Keith Foulke and David Wells on the disabled list.
This is where quiet Jon Lester stepped into the vacuum and cleaned up what had been an ugly production the previous three nights. The Sox pitched to the plan: Lester for six innings and win No. 1 of his career, Rudy Seanez for a 1-2-3 seventh, Mike Timlin for an uneventful eighth, and Jonathan Papelbon for major league-leading save No. 21 in the ninth. The offense: present when needed in the form of Jason Varitek's three-run double in the third. The defense: crisp and accountable. The plays of greatest consequence: Alex Cora's bang-bang play on a Jeff Francoeur hopper in the fifth with the bases loaded, and Mike Lowell's diving snare with a runner aboard to end the game, a 4-1 win that snapped a four-game losing streak before 51,038, the largest gathering at Turner Field this season.
Do all that, manager Terry Francona said, ``and you look like a good ball club again."
The Sox looked good and capable last night, after three forgettable games in Minnesota, where the Twins outscored the Sox, 18-6, and where Boston hit .232. Last night, there was nothing audacious on display. There was simply timing and poise, and the catalyst was Lester.
``I thought he pitched good for a 22-year-old kid, real good," said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, who credited Varitek with guiding Lester through an Atlanta lineup that ranks fourth in the National League in runs.
Yes, Atlanta has lost 15 of 18, falling to 13 games behind the National League East-leading (the Devil Rays, by comparison, are just 11 1/2 behind the Yankees in the American League East). Yes, Lester became the fourth rookie to beat the Braves in an eight-day span.
But to him, they are still the Braves.
``It's tough to get that out of your head," he said. ``I caught myself doing it during spring training, a lot, who I'm facing, what they've done. I try to block it out, but it's still tough with guys like Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Edgar Renteria."
Lester, in just his second major league start, also had to block out the name opposing him on the mound. That was Atlanta ace Tim Hudson, who, with a seven-inning, four-run outing fell to 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in his last four starts against the Sox.
Lester, an unknown to the Atlanta hitters, struck out four his first time through the order. He began his night by throwing a fastball by Marcus Giles, then caught Renteria hitting the snooze button, but nothing else. The former Sox shortstop watched as a fastball buzzed in at 92 miles per hour for a called third strike. Lester fanned Brian Jordan to end the second with a 93-m.p.h. fastball, then snuck a fastball at 91 by Todd Pratt to begin the third. Lester made it four scoreless innings in a row.
Lester, in the fifth, showed his greatest poise. Pratt singled and Hudson bunted him to second. Giles then singled to center and Lester walked Renteria, loading the bases with one out. Lester's task: keeping up with the Joneses. Chipper was due with Andruw to follow. Chipper Jones flied to deep right, scoring Pratt. Lester, at this point, had two outs and two on, with Andruw Jones, who homered a major league-leading 51 times last year, coming up and Francoeur on deck.
``Both those guys can do damage," Lester said. ``You have to kind of pick your poison. You have Francoeur on deck, who is a little more of a free swinger. You can make a decent pitch against him and get him out. With Andruw, he hit 50-something home runs last year. In that situation, I didn't want to give him a cookie."
So he fell behind, 2 and 0 and 3 and 0, but didn't give in, walking Jones.
``That's one of those walks you may have to swallow," Lester said. ``It's one of those you wish they had another column for."
Francoeur, whose power is expected (14 homers, 47 RBIs), but whose average isn't (.246), grounded to Cora. Lester, in his six innings, left seven Braves on base, including three in scoring position. His line: 6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 3 BBs, 5 Ks. He became the first lefthanded rookie starter to win a game for the Sox since Casey Fossum in 2002.
``I was pounding the zone with my fastball, I had better command," Lester said, comparing this start to his major league debut last Saturday, when he sat through a five-hour rain delay and lasted 4 1/3 innings, allowing three runs. ``We went right at them, made them hit it.
``As long as I execute my pitches I have a good idea that I'm going to get you out."
The Sox, it seems, fed off that confidence.
``Clement goes down, we need him," Lowell said of Lester. ``He looked good, he really did."
The Andruw Jones at-bat, Lowell said, ``shows you that he's got a thought process out there. 2 and 0, a lot of young guys will throw one up. He executed his pitches and picked his spot."
It probably helped that Lester got to pitch with a lead, of 1-0 after two innings and 4-0 after three. In the second, Trot Nixon, Varitek, and Lowell put together three singles, with Lowell's scoring Nixon.
The Sox struck for three more in the third, when Hudson did himself in. He walked Coco Crisp to lead off the inning, got Mark Loretta and David Ortiz to fly out, then walked Manny Ramírez (0 for 14, 4 BBs, 6 Ks on the trip). Nixon, up next, hit a high fly into the left-field corner, foul and near the wall. Left fielder Matt Diaz, running wildly, leaped and crashed into the wall as the ball landed where he'd been instead of where he was going.
Why the overaggressive play on what looked like a catchable ball?
``I think he just had a really long run," Nixon said.
Nixon walked on the next pitch. Varitek, on 1 and 1, got a fastball and cranked it off the wall in right-center, emptying the bases for a 4-0 lead.
``We needed that," Nixon said. ``We just didn't do what we wanted to up in Minnesota. For us to come and play a clean game, no errors, timely hitting, was important."