McAdam: Lester sticking with what works

McAdam: Lester sticking with what works
July 29, 2013, 11:45 am
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Nearly through their challenging 10-game stretch of American League East opponents, the Red Sox are guaranteed of no worse than a .500 record in that span -- they sit at 5-4 with a makeup game against Tampa Bay Monday night -- and regardless of Monday's outcome, will find themselves no more than a half-game out of first place in the division with two months to go.
But that wasn't the most positive development for the Red Sox in the week and a half of play since the All-Star break. Instead, the resurgence of Jon Lester is the most noteworthy.
Lester tossed seven shutout innings Sunday as the Red Sox blanked the Orioles, 5-0, to take the series and re-claim first place. It was Lester's second straight win since the break, during which he's allowed just two runs in 13 2/3 innings while striking out 16.
In his last three outings, meanwhile, dating back before the break, Lester sports a 2.29 ERA, his best stretch of starts since he broke from gate in April and won his first six decisions.
"He was outstanding," said John Farrell. "Once again, he stayed out of the middle of the plate, worked around some trouble. He picked up right where left off against Tampa six days ago and it was a solid effort on his part.
"Jon Lester pitching to his capabilities is going to be one of the better pitchers in the league and he's shown it the last couple of times out. I think he's getting a better understanding of the overall pitch mix and how to be most effective."
In June and earlier this month, Lester seemed to be relying too much on his cut fastball -- especially with two strikes on hitters -- and it cost him, with hitters hitting well over .300 on the pitch.
Over the last two starts, Lester has relief more on his fastball and less on the cut fastball, with greatly improved results.
"It's more about his ability to command (the fastball) to both side of the plate," said Farrell.
Lester said the decision to rely more on the fastball was a simple one.
"It was working," chuckled Lester. "We always have a game plan going into every start and sometimes that changes when you come out of the bullpen. Obviously, (catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia) liked where my heater was. We threw a good many two-seamers, too, so that's probably why the fastball total was up.
"But I was able to move it around and keep it down (in the strike zone) and keep these guys in the ballpark."
In effect, Lester pitched backward Sunday, getting ahead with his curve ball, before using the fastball to close out hitters. And when he wasn't getting swings-and-misses, he used a two-seam fastball to induce groundballs.
"With no outs and guys on first and second," recalled Lester, "and come out of that without any runs was awesome."
The Orioles' biggest threat against him came in the sixth when they had runners at first and second and no out. Lester fanned Matt Wieters, then got J.J. Hardy to top a ball to third baseman Jose Iglesias, who turned a slick 5-4-3 double-play to get Lester out of the inning unscathed.
In retrospect, it certainly seems like the Red Sox had the right idea when they lined Lester up to pitch last in the rotation to start the second half.
In the first half of the season, Lester threw the third-most number of pitches of any American League start, and it's clear, the nine days off he had between his final outing of the first half and the first start of the second half was of great benefit to him.
"At the time, he needed the extra days," said Farrell. "It certainly paid off for him. We see increased command, similar to what he's shown over his career. So the additional days and just getting away from that first half has set well with him."
"I think (the benefit) is all null and void now," countered Lester. "Obviously, the rest was good for that (first) start (out of the break) but now we're back to the grind of every five days and just going out there and competing."
But, Lester added, he felt he's been able to build up sufficient arm strength, which will allow him to continue to rely on his fastball. When he reached back a few times Sunday, Lester touched 95 mph.
On Sunday, Lester looked like he did in April and May. If he can continue that form, it will make the Red Sox feel that much better about where they're heading in August and September.