Lester flashes vintage form in Game 1 win

Lester flashes vintage form in Game 1 win
October 4, 2013, 11:00 pm
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BOSTON – Jon Lester made an impressive beginning to his first post-season start in four years. He needed just 14 pitches to strike out the side in the first inning, and making it four strikeouts in a row in the second, as the Red Sox beat the Rays, 12-2, in Game 1 of their American League Division Series at Fenway Park Friday afternoon.
 
“Obviously, getting to start Game 1 at Fenway Park is pretty exciting,” Lester said. “Our game plan early on was to set the tone, come right after the guys. It felt pretty good. And obviously, the velocity up there showed. So, just try to carry that over.”
 
Lester retired lead-off batter Desmond Jennings swinging at a 97-mph fastball – well above the 92.7-mph average he established in the regular season (according to Fangraphs.com). Lester maintained his velocity throughout his outing, maxing out at 97.5 mph, and averaging 94.6 (according to Brooksbaseball.net). He struck out seven in all, allowing just two runs on three hits with three walks in 7 2/3 innings. He threw 114 pitches, 71 for strikes.
 
Four strikeouts to open a postseason game tied a Red Sox record. The only other Sox starter to do so was Josh Beckett in Game 1 of the 2007 World Series.
 
Lester was dominant throughout his outing, improving his career postseason record to 3-3 with a 2.35 ERA, allowing 12 earned runs in 46 innings, in seven starts.
 
For Red Sox manager John Farrell, Lester’s performance was a continuation of what the left-hander was able to do in the second half of the regular season. Overall, Lester was 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA in 33 starts.  In 13 second half starts, he posted a record of 7-2 with a 2.57 ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio rose from 2.29 in the first half to 3.36 in the second half.
 
“We’ve seen a number of starts in the second half where once he settles in and he creates such a good rhythm, that rhythm and balance in his delivery is what allows him to sustain that power throughout when he’s out there. It’s made his cutter more effective. His changeup got some swings and misses because of increased velocity to his fastball, and he was in a good place today.”
 
Of Lester’s seven strikeouts, three came on fastballs, ranging from 91-97 mph, three were on cutters, and one on a curveball. According to Brooksbaseball, of his 114 pitches, 62 were fastballs, with an average velocity of 94.6 mph, maxing out at 97.5 mph. He threw his entire repertoire at the Rays – with four sinkers, 12 changeups, 11 curveballs, and 25 cutters – baffling them with almost every pitch.
 
“He’s gotten better,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “He had struggles in the recent past with command issues with his fastball, but that's not the case right now. He's throwing his fastball where he wants to, the cutter's outstanding. He just had a really good fastball. He came out there on 97. I was hoping that would be pretty much adrenaline wear off and become more the pedestrian version, but that never happened.
 
With two outs in the second inning, though, Lester reached an interesting juncture, a scenario that had at times tripped him up in the past.
 
Back in spring training Lester talked of having a chip on his shoulder after the Red Sox horrendous 2012 season. He was embarrassed and he was angry. He wanted to lead by example, he said, be a good model for some of the younger pitchers on the team and in the organization.
 
He knew one of the things he would have to work to improve this season was his body language on the mound. There were times in the past he didn’t get the calls he wanted and his displeasure with umpires was obvious. And there were times that would linger, affecting his performance for the next pitch or the next batter or the next inning.
 
On Friday afternoon Lester early on found himself again in one of those situations.
 
With two outs in the second inning, Lester was certain his fifth pitch to Sean Rodriguez, a changeup, should have been a called strike three to end the inning. Instead, home plate umpire Chris Guccione called it a ball. Rodriguez turned on Lester’s next pitch – a 95-mph fastball and sent it into the second row of Monster seats, giving the Rays a one-run lead. After getting Yunel Escobar, the next batter, to ground out, ending the inning, Lester had a chat near the first base line with Guccione as he walked off the field.
 
“I thought it was a pretty good pitch,” Lester said. “I asked him, you know, did he have it down or did it come [in], did it miss in or where he had it. And he just said it was borderline down. So, nothing you can do after that.”
 
But Lester did not let his emotions get the better of him. Even after giving up another solo home run, to Ben Zobrist leading off the fourth, putting the Sox in a two-run deficit, Lester maintained his composure. It paid off for him and his team. After his offense scored five runs in the fourth, sending 10 batters to the plate, Lester quickly got his team back into the dugout with an 11-pitch top of the fifth.
 
It was Lester’s first outing since Sept. 28 -- just before his wife gave birth to the couple’s second child. Perhaps it was the additional rest, the adrenaline of pitching his first post-season game since 2008, or feeling like he had something to prove.
 
“Keep going,” said manager John Farrell. “Because [the factors] continue to add up. I think what we’ve seen throughout the course of this year is Jon has ironed out his delivery to where, when he’s got added adrenaline or emotion, he’s still able to channel it in the right way an don’t sacrifice location with his stuff.
 
“But that first inning was powerful. And something that we probably haven’t seen in a couple of years’ time. I know he was more than ready for today’s start.”
 
Despite the importance of the game, Lester said he prepared as if it were just another start, like his last in Baltimore.
 
“When that fifth day comes,” he said, “you go out and toe it up and see what you can get done.”
 
What he got done Friday was just what the Red Sox needed.