Lester shuts door on the Mariners
Red Sox cruise to fourth straight win
For 3 2/3 innings, Jon Lester was perfect.
Then, after Ichiro Suzuki reached on an infield hit with two out in the fourth, Lester focused on going the distance. When Suzuki foiled Lester’s bid for his third career complete-game shutout, scoring Seattle’s only run with one out in the ninth, the Red Sox lefthander settled for the next best thing: A complete-game win.
“A win’s a win, regardless if you go five innings or if you go nine,’’ said Lester, who went the distance in Monday night’s 6-1 victory over the Mariners at Fenway Park, allowing one run on eight hits with no walks while ringing up six strikeouts. Lester threw 119 pitches, 73 strikes.
“Obviously, you want to go nine,’’ he said. “Every time you go out there that’s your goal: to stand out there and watch everyone run in and give them high fives, and you feel like all the work you put in for that week was for a reason.’’
Turning in his finest pitching performance of the season, one befitting a staff ace, Lester helped the Red Sox (16-19) extend their home winning streak to four games. He did so after recording his eighth career complete game, and second of the season after going eight innings in a 3-1 loss at Toronto April 11.
“He had a mission to accomplish, and he did it,’’ said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, the beneficiary of four consecutive strong outings by his starting pitchers, leaving the beleaguered Josh Beckett to follow suit in the culmination of this two-game set vs. the Mariners Tuesday at 4:05 p.m.
“I think when you watch the other guys, as a staff, we’re pretty prideful in what we try to do,’’ Lester said. “When you start seeing guys succeed and making pitches and getting out of jams, and the offense comes in and picks our guys up if we give up a run and scores another run, that confidence, it just keeps building.
“And you feel like if I buy into what we’re doing the next few pitches, everything will take care of itself,’’ Lester said. “I think that’s been our mind-set the last four nights.’’
An air of anticipation seemed to grow among the Fenway Park crowd of 37,334 when Lester took the mound and worked with cold-blooded efficiency in this 2-hour 25-minute affair, retiring the first 11 batters he faced by working with catcher Kelly Shoppach to establish his fastball on both sides of the plate.
“Shop did a great job tonight of really establishing both sides of the plate for me,’’ Lester said. “Getting me in a rhythm, feeling comfortable. I got some quick outs and got the guys back in the dugout and once again they swung the bats really well.
“It was big for us and big for the starting staff these last four games. It’s good to see.’’
Lester held the Mariners scoreless through 8 1/3 innings and allowed just one base runner through five frames - that coming in the fourth when Suzuki hit an infield single that ricocheted off Lester’s glove toward the third-base side of the mound.
Third baseman Will Middlebrooks was unable to get to the ball in time to make a play at first.
“I mean, I think it’s everybody’s goal to go out there and throw a no-hitter, a perfect game,’’ said Lester, who didn’t allow a ball out of the infield until a fly out to right for the second out in the fifth inning. “I just ended up giving up a base hit a little later than normal.
“It’s obviously in the back of your mind,’’ Lester said about the possibility of throwing a perfect game or no-hitter. “But I don’t think it really becomes significant until the sixth, seventh inning, when you’re cutting those outs down and you might have a chance.’’
The offense provided enough support for Lester by scoring two runs in the first inning.
Dustin Pedroia, who had his 14-game hitting streak snapped after going 0 for 3, drew a lead-off walk from lefthander Jason Vargas (4-3, 3.28 ERA) to spark the one-out rally.
David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez followed with back-to-back RBI doubles to left, giving the Sox a 2-0 lead.
The Sox came back in the fourth and tagged Vargas for three more runs on three hits, including homers by left fielder Daniel Nava and Shoppach.
Nava, who reached on all four plate appearances in Sunday’s 12-1 romp of the Indians by going 2 for 2 with a pair of doubles and getting hit by two pitches, hit a two-run shot that just made it into the Green Monster seats, extending Boston’s lead to 4-0.
It snapped a streak of 171 at-bats between his memorable grand slam in his first major league at-bat (on his first pitch, no less) June 12, 2010.
“I didn’t think it was gone,’’ Nava said. “Knowing how big the wall is and seeing some other balls that guys have hit, I didn’t think it compared to a [Will] Middlebrooks bomb, or the one Shop hit later. I thought it was going to go off the wall, but I was surprised that it barely squeaked over.
“But I’ll take it. I’m not going to complain.’’
After Marlon Byrd flied out to center, Shoppach took Vargas deep to left, clearing the wall with a mammoth solo homer that made it 5-0. “Occassionally, I’ll bump into ’em,’’ Shoppach said.
The three insurance runs the Sox scored in the fourth provided Lester with more than enough support to throw four more scoreless innings, allowing just five hits the rest of the way.
“I wasn’t coming out of that game unless we scored 10,’’ Lester said. “For me, it was my game, and Bobby was going to have to fight me for the ball if he came to the end of the dugout.’’
When Lester emerged from the ninth to a rousing ovation, it came as a relief for the bullpen. “When he went through six innings with 65 pitches, everyone was pretty excited,’’ said Matt Albers. “We always stay ready, but it’s always a great thing to have happen.’’
Certainly, Lester was due some noogies, or even a Gatorade bath, from his relievers, all of whom were treated to a rare night off.
“There were no noogies or Gatorade baths, or nothing like that,’’ Lester said. “Just a lot of high fives. It was nice to have that.’’
After Suzuki spoiled Lester’s bid for the shutout when he reached on a leadoff single to left, went to third with one out on Justin Smoak’s double to left and scored on Kyle Seager’s ground out to second, Lester punctuated his night in the only way he knew how.
He struck out Alex Liddi to end the game.
“We’re trying to build a foundation of confidence in each other as a team,’’ Valentine said. “And when Jon is out there pitching like that we feel good about ourselves.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.