It was with a small, understated fist pump, and a wipe of the face with the top of his jersey that Jon Lester found a way to celebrate the 92-mile-per-hour fastball that exploded past Matthew
``Shoot," Varitek said, ``his last pitch he had some serious velocity to get by a very good fastball hitter in LeCroy."
And with that, with all the strikeouts and all the offense (16 hits) and all the superlatives that seem to attend a Red Sox-National League matchup, Lester finished off back-to-back sweeps of the dregs of the NL East for his second career (and second straight) win, a 9-3 drubbing of the Washington Nationals last night before 36,464 at Fenway.
The win made it six straight against NL competition in a six-day stretch that has seen some of the best from the offense all season. The Red Sox are hitting, and it isn't just David Ortiz -- whose second-inning grand slam took significant pressure off Lester -- and Manny Ramírez -- who added another hit and RBI to his totals -- it's others such as Alex Gonzalez (2 for 4, two runs) and Trot Nixon (3 for 5, two runs, two RBIs).
But it is not just the offense. Over the last six games, while Matt Clement and David Wells remain on the disabled list, the starters' run totals have looked like this: 1, 2, 2, 3, 1, 1. Those three runs? They belong to Kyle Snyder, the righthander picked up from the Royals who is no longer with the major league club.
So Lester's outing, though it featured the most strikeouts of the season for a Sox pitcher, as well as just one run allowed on three hits, was not all that out of the ordinary. Not this week. And while general manager Theo Epstein combs the scrap heap for anyone with a starting résumé -- Jason Johnson anyone? -- one of his most-prized possessions continued to slow the hint of panic that was creeping into any discussion about the Sox' pitching.
``What I thought he did so effectively was that he made them respect all of his pitches," manager Terry Francona said of Lester. ``The slow breaking ball, his cutter, his fastball, his four-seamer. You can't sit on one pitch, and he threw them all for strikes. Looks like his fastball has got a little bit -- whatever it registers on the gun -- it's got that last couple feet that it keeps going, and when it's getting to the hitter and Tek [catcher Jason Varitek] it's got a little finish on it.
``It looked like to me the game slowed down for him a little bit tonight, and that's good."
And perhaps that confidence, that slowing down, came from a pitch in the second inning. One from Nationals starter Shawn Hill.
Having already gotten out of a two-out, bases-loaded jam in the first by inducing Varitek to ground out, Hill faced Ortiz in the second with Gonzalez on third (single to center), Kevin Youkilis on second (single to left), and Mark Loretta on first (single to left). The Sox' designated hitter got a thigh-high fastball and drove it onto the roof of the camera well in center field for his fifth career grand slam (all of which have come at Fenway Park), providing Lester with everything he would need.
Though, unfortunately for Nationals manager Frank Robinson's blood pressure, it wouldn't be the final runs for a lineup that got at least one hit from each starter except Mike Lowell. With the second straight blowout -- and remember, this series came on the heels of the Nationals rallying on consecutive days to beat the Yankees -- frustration poured from the opposing dugout.
``Thank goodness we only play nine [innings] and they don't make us play on until we catch up," Robinson said. ``So, no, nothing went right. The pitching wasn't very good this series and the hitting was nonexistent. We just got no offensive production from anybody. We had no chance."
Especially not against Lester. Washington struck for its only run off Boston's starter in the third inning, when Damian Jackson (leadoff double) scored when Alfonso Soriano blooped a single just beyond the glove of Youkilis at first. That was it. No other National got beyond second base until Lester had been lifted after six innings and 107 pitches, giving way to Rudy Seanez (one run), Manny Delcarmen, and Julian Tavarez (one run).
And, though Lester appeared to be tiring toward the end of outing, losing a bit of location and velocity, both Lester and Varitek disputed the notion.
``I've thrown 100 pitches before," Lester said. ``It doesn't bother me. At the beginning of the year it did, just because you're competitive and you want to be out there and pitch. Now, if they leave me out there, they do, and if they feel it's time to take me out, then that's fine. Physically, I feel fine."
He pitched fine, too, both against Atlanta and Washington. Good enough that it seems he won't be leaving the rotation any time soon. Good enough that the sting of injuries seems to lessen each time he takes the mound. Now, he just needs to do it against the American League.
``We have had some guys who have anchored the rotation so that he doesn't have to come up and carry the load," Francona said, citing Tim Wakefield, Curt Schilling, and Beckett. ``If he just does what he's supposed to do, it puts us in good shape."
Even with all those names on the disabled list.