Lester in top form
Lefty strikes out 11 as Sox blank Jays
TORONTO — Perhaps Jon Lester could sense that May is nearing on the calendar. His usual April foibles having been well-reported, the lefthander looked last night as if he already had moved on to a new month, making excellent career numbers against the Blue Jays even better in a 2-0 win.
He had started to improve his last time out, looking more like his typical dominating self. He wasn’t quite there yet. He was last night.
Though he already had thrown 107 pitches, Lester strode to the mound for the seventh inning, seemingly confident, and emotionless. With strikeouts to begin and end the inning, the lefthander finished his outing with 11, just one shy of his career high, the 12 he had last May 31 at Toronto.
His scoreless streak reached 12 2/3 innings, as he allowed the Jays just one hit, and walked only two. In his last two starts, his ERA has gone from 8.44 to 4.71.
“Pounded the zone,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “He got a feel for his changeup early, especially against those righties. Slowed them down a little bit. Had power to his pitches. He was good. He was very good. For us to let him go out in the seventh and go through the middle [of the order], we felt pretty good about how he was pitching.’’
With the Sox’ seventh in their last nine games, the team many expected to be contending in the American League East finally reached .500, at 11-11. Their road trip is off to a 3-0 start and they are 6-3 away from Fenway Park this season.
“This was a great series for us,’’ Lester said. “If we keep putting games together like that, and pitching and hitting when we need to, then like we’ve said all along, things will take care of themselves.
“Any time that you can go on the road and play well, it always helps. In the long haul, you’re going to play well at home. Any time you can string some games together and pull some victories out, especially close games like the past two nights, it definitely helps.’’
The superlatives were similar to the night before, when Clay Buchholz turned ace for an evening. On yet another night that the Sox offense was held in check, this time by Brett Cecil, Lester was there to save the Sox, along with Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, who finished it off with a scoreless inning each.
“Every day, we pitch it and we catch it,’’ Francona said. “We didn’t knock the cover off the ball tonight. But it ends up being a really good, crisp night.’’
Other than a first-inning leadoff walk to Mike McCoy, who was caught stealing moments later, and a second-inning leadoff double by Vernon Wells, Toronto could do little to halt the steamrolling Lester. After that double, Lester got the next 14 batters, dazzling with command. The streak finally ended when, with two outs in the sixth, Lester walked McCoy for the second time.
Lester came back to get Aaron Hill looking for the third out of the inning and for his ninth strikeout of the night.
“Threw a couple good curveballs early in the count, and then later in the count starting to get a feel back for being able to locate my cutter down and in to some guys,’’ Lester said. “[Jason Varitek] did a great job with that, of kind of picking different spots to go after guys with different pitches.
“It’s more consistent, down in the zone, using all my pitches more. You’d have to ask the hitters on what they’re seeing, if it’s different. I don’t know. Physically I feel a little bit more on time, being able to repeat my delivery. The main thing is keeping the ball down in the zone.’’
He didn’t get much support from his teammates, until the sixth inning. Enter Darnell McDonald.
McDonald began the inning with a double, and moved to third on a Marco Scutaro single. He came home on a Dustin Pedroia fly to center field for the first run of the game. And though Kevin Youkilis added a double with two outs, the Sox couldn’t get any more runs across. J.D. Drew lashed a line drive, but the ball was caught by shortstop Alex Gonzalez, stranding men on second and third.
The Sox gave Lester slightly more breathing room with another run in the seventh. With one out, Adrian Beltre mashed a ground-rule double to right, then moved to third on a groundout by pinch hitter Jeremy Hermida. Up stepped McDonald. He singled to left, bringing home Beltre with the second run of the game. It ended up not being needed.
“He was able to criss-cross both sides of the plate,’’ Varitek said of Lester. “He was able to throw some changeups behind in the count, some curveballs, some cutters, locate his fastball. It was huge. It was huge for us. Obviously we didn’t swing the bats great, but we scored just enough, and it started with Jonny’s pitching.’’
It was Lester’s first quality start of the season in his fifth outing, as he added those seven scoreless innings to the 5 2/3 scoreless frames he threw against Baltimore Friday. As poorly as he had pitched early in the season, it still was somehow strange that Lester was the only one of the Sox five starters not to have recorded a quality start. That’s no longer the case.
“Repeating,’’ Francona said of what Lester has done in his last two starts. “After he makes a pitch, whether he misses or doesn’t, he comes back with the pitch he wants to make. It looks like there was some conviction to it. That’s the guy we know.’’