ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Jon Lester was the Red Sox' Opening Day starter and is now the longest tenured pitcher on the team's pitching staff.
Those things mean he's the club's No. 1 starter.
But what suggests he's truly the staff ace was on display again last night. With the Sox having lost three straight and nine of their last 11, the Red Sox were in need of a starter to shut down the opponent, and Lester acted accordingly.
Backed by eight runs in the third inning, Lester pitched seven strong innings and limited the Tampa Bay Rays to just two runs in a 9-3 Red Sox victory.
The win enabled Lester to improve to 6-0 this season, his best start to a season ever. But more important is this: in games following Red Sox losses this season, Lester is 4-0 with a 1.94 ERA in six starts.
Lester downplayed his success after setbacks.
"I think that's all of our jobs,'' he said of stopping losing streaks. "It just doesn't fall on one guy's shoulder. We take that personally as a staff, to go out there and try to throw as many innings as we can and save our bullpen.''
He wasn't dominant, necessarily, but he pitched with efficiency and precision, keeping the Rays off-balance.
"I don't know that he was as powerful as he's been in previous starts this year,'' said John Farrell of Lester, "but he went out and he pitched. I think the most important thing was the consistency of his changeup and his curveball. They both have very good definition and it's given him four different pitches to spread the zone with and take different attack plans, given the hitter.''
It made Lester's night easier when the Red Sox offense broke through for a big inning, providing him with support early.
"Obviously, it feels good,'' he said of the backing. "The guys did a good job that inning. It's big. We haven't scored a bunch of runs lately and that takes a lot of pressure off us to just go out there and execute pitches.''
Lester said the early innings was "a bit of a grind on,'' as he focused on driving the ball down in the strike zone and slowing down a Tampa Bay lineup that had been hot of late.
For the second straight start, Lester didn't permit a walk, an indication that his off-speed pitches have given him, as Farrell pointed out, more options.
"Any time I can get an off-speed pitch over, early and late in counts,'' he said, "it just takes the pressure off my cutter and being really fine with my fastball.''
He struck out five, giving him 1,110 strikeouts for his career, and moving him past Josh Beckett into fifth on the Red Sox all-time list.
"It's pretty cool,'' said Lester. "It's not something you play for. I play to win games and hopefully win a World Series. If it just so happens along the way that your name moves up those lists, then great. Obviously, it's an honor, but I don't really pay attention to it.''