ANAHEIM, Calif. - Jon Lester, at 24, had assumed titles unbefitting a man his age, already a no-hit phenom, a World Series clincher, a cancer survivor.
Now add one more. Lester is an ace, pure and simple, every bit as much as Josh Beckett, the man he replaced last night in the Red Sox' 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. Lester twirled seven brilliant innings, giving the Sox their 10th straight postseason victory over the Angels. He allowed six hits and one unearned run, striking out seven and staking his claim as one the sport's elite.
"He's an ace," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "We've got Josh and Dice [Daisuke Matsuzaka]. But Jon is a guy we want out there. He's been great all year. I wasn't surprised at all."
Los Angeles beat Boston eight of nine games during the regular season, but Jason Bay took part in none of them. Bay, the left fielder who came from the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates July 31 to replace Manny Ramírez, bashed the decisive hit in his first career playoff game, a two-run homer in the sixth inning off John Lackey.
Justin Masterson and Jonathan Papelbon owned the eighth and ninth. Jacoby Ellsbury added three hits, an insurance RBI in the ninth, and a jaw-on-the-dirt diving catch in shallow center in the eighth.
But it was Lester who carried the Sox, from the first inning - when he escaped a bases-loaded jam - to his 117th and final pitch. Everyone who fretted the Red Sox would miss Beckett forgot Lester became their most consistent and durable pitcher all season. He amassed a 3.21 ERA and 16-6 record. In the past 130 years, no pitcher with at least 59 career starts (Lester's total) had a better winning percentage than Lester's .771.
Manager Terry Francona this week, when he discussed Lester overtaking the task reserved for Beckett, smiled like a man who knows a secret and isn't telling. He never worried, and everyone else discovered why last night.
"I believe that we don't put too much on any one of our pitchers' shoulders," catcher Jason Varitek said. "There's a reason we have a full staff. Jon's just a part of it. And he's a big part of it. Nobody can bear the weight for somebody else. Just go out there and pitch the games you can pitch."
Vladimir Guerrero helped Masterson in the eighth with a base-running mistake, a gaffe bound for Angels infamy.
After Ellsbury made his diving catch on Mark Teixeira to lead off the inning, Guerrero singled. Torii Hunter followed with a bloop to shallow right, just out of Kevin Youkilis's grasp.
Guerrero, waiting by second base to see if the ball would land safely, scampered to third as Youkilis gathered the ball. "Throw!" Masterson thought. Youkilis fired across the diamond to Mike Lowell, who snared the throw on a hop and easily tagged out Guerrero, desperately diving head first, for the second out.
Hideki Okajima warmed in the bullpen in the seventh; Lester kept him there. Erick Aybar popped a fastball to short. Chone Figgins watched a low fastball for strike three. Garret Anderson, two singles under his belt, went to two strikes. He dribbled a pitch foul. Lester threw him a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, his hardest of the night. Another foul. Anderson weakly flared the seventh pitch he saw to Pedroia at second base.
Lester strode slowly toward the dugout, holding his glove in his left hand, head down. Francona met him at the top step, offering his palm. Francona shook his hand and tapped Lester on the back of the head.
"A little bit of everything," Lester said. "Seems like some innings I had good stuff, command of everything. It seemed like once the game started flowing, I got better command."
Lackey fired lightning bolts through the thick, clear California air for five innings. He was never quite dominant, but he threw his best pitches at the most critical moments and kept the Sox scoreless. Youkilis drew a walk with one out in the sixth, which it seemed Lackey would negate when he struck out J.D. Drew.
Bay walked toward the plate, a welcome sight for Lackey. Bay had never faced Lackey before last night, and Lackey overmatched him in his first two at-bats. He swung through a fastball in his first at-bat, and swung over a curve in the dirt in his second.
Lackey started Bay with another strike in the sixth. He fired an 0-1 fastball. All night long, his pitches darted into the lower half of the strike zone. This one sailed over the outside of the plate, chest high.
Bay unleashed his quick swing, hips flying open, wrists rolling. There was no doubt. The ball sailed high into the air to left. It landed in the back of the Sox' bullpen, some 400 feet from home plate. The Red Sox led, 2-1, and the frenzied crowd hushed.
"That was a huge hit for us, to get us breathing," Pedroia said. "He's not trying to be Manny Ramírez. He's trying to be Jason Bay."
Equipped with a lead after Bay's home run, Lester strengthened. He struck out Howie Kendrick. Mike Napoli ran the count full, then flailed at strike three. Gary Matthews Jr. battled to another full count, then fouled of a pitch. Lester's seventh pitch, a fastball at the knees, froze Matthews and sent him back to the bench. His pitch count hit 100 exactly.
Anderson singled to left with one out in the fourth, and Lester kept him there by striking out Teixeira. When Guerrero rolled a fastball to Jed Lowrie, Lester, surely, had escaped.
Lowrie had handled each ball hit his way as a shortstop - all 155 plays - without an error, a rookie record. The first chance he had in the playoffs forced him to his left. Lowrie shuffled toward second and leaned over. The ball bounced struck the heel of his glove and skittered away.
Hunter ensured Lowrie would be punished. Hunter flared the fifth pitch of his at-bat, a 1-2 fastball, to left field. Bay, playing deep, charged forward but the ball thudded in front of him. Anderson chugged from second and slid home for the game's first run, the only run, as it turned out, the Angels would score.
"A lot was being made of Josh not pitching in that game," Bay said. "I'm glad everyone got to see that Jon Lester has been doing it all year."