By Dan Duggan
NEW YORK — Jon Lester hadn’t been terrible in his two previous Opening Day starts.
Last year, Lester went seven innings and surrendered just one run to the Detroit Tigers. In 2011, he allowed five runs in 5-1/3 innings against the Texas Rangers.
The one common thread in both of those starts was that the Red Sox lost the games. And the Opening Day losses were a precursor to early-season struggles -- the Sox started 1-5 last year and 0-6 in 2011.
All of that added significance to Lester’s start on Monday at Yankee Stadium. Aside from a shaky fourth inning that spiked his pitch count, Lester was sharp, allowing two runs and striking out seven in five innings. Most importantly, the Sox won, 8-2.
“It’s big,” Lester said. “It’s obviously a lot nicer than the last couple years to be on top 1-0 instead of going through a whole road trip without a win again. Big for us to come in here and, like I talked about yesterday, get on a roll and set the tone early for us.”
Lester cruised through the first three innings, surrendering just a hit and a walk. He hit a rough patch in the fourth, giving up a leadoff double to Kevin Youkilis and a walk to Vernon Wells. Lester got Ben Francisco to pop out before Ichiro Suzuki singled to load the bases.
Lester struck out Jayson Nix looking for the second out, but couldn’t escape the jam. Francisco Cervelli singled down the left-field line to drive in two runs. Lester minimized the damage of the 34-pitch inning by retiring Brett Gardner on a fly-out.
“I would have liked the ball Cervelli hit to go foul or pop it up or roll it over,” Lester said. “It was a pretty good pitch. He did a good job of keeping it fair. One out with bases loaded, two runs is not ideal but you’ll take it. It was good to get out of it and get on to the next one."
Lester pitched a scoreless fifth inning to finish his day after throwing 96 pitches.
“I thought he came out, he commanded the strike zone down,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “But the lengthy inning, I think, started to catch up with him a little bit, and after 96-plus pitches after five, I felt like it was time to turn the game over to the 'pen. I thought Jon, he did bend but he didn't break in that two-run inning. I thought more than anything, a good starting point for him.”
It was particularly encouraging on the heels of the worst season of Lester’s career. The 29-year-old went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA last season, leading many to question his standing as the staff ace.
“We all feel for him,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “We all feel for what he's been through the past year and we know that's not him. We know that he's the guy that you saw today. It's nice to see him out there just throwing like he always has.”
Lester knows he's capable of better performances, but he didn't have any complaints Monday.
"That’s the biggest thing: to have the W, regardless how good bad or ugly it is," Lester said. "When you win, everything’s a lot happier. It’s good especially after the last couple of years to get the first one off our back and come back on Wednesday and do it again."