Lester remains dominant as contract talks halted

Lester remains dominant as contract talks halted
July 5, 2014, 6:15 pm
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(AP Photo)

BOSTON -- All season long, Jon Lester has made it a point to say that he doesn't want his on-again, off-again contract negotiations with the Red Sox to become a distraction.

Though the nature of those negotiations -- particularly that the two sides are no longer engaged in them -- has made it into publicized reports over the course of the last few days, Lester held true to his word in Game 1 of his team's doubleheader with the Orioles on Saturday.

He went eight innings strong, scattering five hits, striking out seven and walking none in the 3-2 walk-off win.

"Judging by today I don't think it's much of a distraction," Lester said with a smile. "I think that's something we've already crossed right now. Talking to ownership and sitting down with everybody involved, both sides are happy with not talking right now."

Lester was sharp from the start of his latest outing as he struck out O's leadoff man Nick Markakis on three pitches.

A third-inning lapse from the defense behind him forced his pitch-count up early, however. First Dustin Pedroia uncharacteristically threw one off-line to Mike Napoli, allowing Delmon Young to reach. Xander Bogaerts made the team's second error of the frame when he booted a Steve Pearce ground ball into left field, allowing both Young and Caleb Joesph to score.

Lester bared down and retired the next five consecutive hitters.

"Sometimes for me, Jonny can get a little rattled," said catcher David Ross. "He didn't today. He really kept his poise. We didn't play well behind him, he kept his poise. It was a very mature starter today with great stuff. You saw it in action out there."

Baltimore's only two runs of the day came unearned, and after that Lester seemed to cruise. Outside of the third inning, only two Orioles base runners made their way into scoring position.

"Feel good," Lester said. "Fastball command's been pretty good. Feel like I've gotten the consistency back with my cutter, which has been helpful at times just getting in on righties. All in all, just moving the ball around pretty well. Keeping it down. Keeping the ball on the ground. Base hits today, a couple were on the ground, a couple that just got over the infielder's heads. I'll take that all day."

By the time Lester had made his way through the sixth inning, he had thrown 96 pitches. When he finished the seventh, he had racked up 110 and he figured his day might be over. But when manager John Farrell didn't say anything to him in the dugout in between innings, he made his way back out for the eighth.

He needed just eight pitches to finish off his day, getting some help from Stephen Drew and Dustin Pedroia, who turned a pretty-looking double play on Nelson Cruz to retire the side in order.

"The pinch count was climbing but he seemingly got more efficient in the last couple of innings," Farrell said. "He's in that gray area. We're sending him out with [110] pitches to start the eighth inning but he never really labored at all. Because of the rhythm, he never over-worked to create velocity. He was coming off of a couple of days rest so we had that on our side. Just a very strong game by Jon."

With another sterling stretch under his belt, Lester has found himself in the middle of one of the best runs of his career. He hasn't allowed an earned run in two starts and now has allowed two earned runs or less in each of his last five starts. He's allowed four earned runs combined in his last five starts for a 0.96 ERA.

Before the game, Farrell said this is the best season he's ever seen out of Lester. Saturday's start did nothing to change that sentiment.

"There's been times throughout his career where he gets on these stretches," Farrell said. "You kind of just give him the ball and get out of the way. He's now into a solid month and a half of elite performance against good lineups."

All the while, free agency looms on the other side of the season.

"I really couldn't imagine the pressure of that along with the pressure of just trying to pitch your game and help your team win," Jonny Gomes said. "If there's a book to be written, he's definitely writing it about how to deal with it."

An All-Star nod surely wouldn't hurt future negotiations whenever they occur -- whether with the Red Sox or someone else.

The case could be made relatively easily that he belongs in Minnesota later this month. He's seventh in the A.L. in ERA, fourth in innings pitched, seventh in strikeouts and tenth in WHIP.

Also helping Lester's cause is that Farrell is the manager. As such, Farrell has seven selections of his own he can make.

But like with his contract talks, Lester chose not to make a big deal about any potential All-Star nomination.

"Obviously when you talk about individual accolades, yeah that's always nice," he said. "It's always fun to go do that stuff. But I know how hard it is as far as a pitcher to get selected. Got a lot of great pitchers in this league. If I don't, hey I'll enjoy the three-four days as best I can. If I do, obviously it'd be awesome for me and my family to be a part of it."