No sweat: Lester rises to the occasion in Game 5

No sweat: Lester rises to the occasion in Game 5
October 29, 2013, 1:30 am
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ST. LOUIS -- There were games during the 2012 season, games that now didn't mean much, when Jon Lester looked like he was going to implode, right there on the mound.

Maybe it was a pitch that he thought should have been a strike and wasn't. Maybe it was the self-loathing that came with having given up a big hit that turned into a big inning.

Whatever the cause, Lester looked on the verge of coming unglued.

But last night at Busch Stadium, in what was inarguably the biggest start of his career, Lester was strangely calm, almost serene.

With the Sox' bullpen depleted from the workload of the previous two nights and the team in danger of falling behind in the World Series, there was Lester, Zen-like.

He didn't shake off his catcher, David Ross, all night. He wasn't rattled when he left a pitch out over the plate to Matt Holliday and saw it land 430 feet away.

In a Big Moment, Lester appeared as rattled as he might have been pitching a game on a back field in Fort Myers in February.

"I'm glad it looked that way," said Lester. "It doesn't matter how many games at this stage you play -- your nerves are going, your heart rate is going. It's just a matter of once you kind of settle in, realizing it's baseball, fastball down and away.

"Game 5 of the World Series, it's just as effective as Feb. 1."

In a Game 1 matchup against the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright, the St. Louis ace forgot to show up, shelled for five runs in five innings. But Monday night was the pitcher's duel everyone had expected last week, and Lester was still the better pitcher.

He went 7 2/3 innings, allowing just one run on three hits in a 3-1 Red Sox victory. He faced one batter over the minimum through the first three innings before allowing the one-out homer to Holliday in the fourth.

After that, he retired the next 12 in a row before yielding a one-out double to David Freese in the seventh. After getting Pete Kozma on a flyout, he yielded the final four outs to Koji Uehara.

Throughout the night, Lester was never rattled. He found a good rhythm with Ross and attacked the St. Louis lineup, consistently getting ahead in the count. Of the 91 pitches he threw, 61 were for strikes.

He found his rhythm, with some help from Ross, and never lost it.

"Once you're able to do that," said Lester, "I think the nerves, the adrenaline, all that stuff . . . you just try to go back to executing pitches down in the zone."

He made it sound easy. And while he was out there, he made it look easy, never displaying much with his body language, never looking anxious. In a pressure-filled environment, he looked almost emotion-less.

"That's how he is every day," claimed David Ortiz. "You don't know if he's mad or happy."

He started Game 4 of the 2007 World Series and won, but the Red Sox were already up three games to none and their coronation was a mere formality. Monday night, he neatly matched his biggest performance with the biggest stage.

"Jon Lester," concluded John Farrell, "was fantastic tonight."

In the process, Lester joined some pretty elite company. Game 5 was his sixth post-season win, the most ever by a Red Sox lefty, tying him with Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez.

He also became the first pitch to throw at least 7 2/3 innings in consecutive World Series starts since Roger Clemens did so in 1999-2000 and the first since Greg Maddux to do it in the same World Series.

Schilling, Martinez, Maddux, Clemens. Pretty fair company for a starting pitcher, no?

"The guy is our backbone," said Ross. "He's our horse when he's out there. We expect a lot out of him and he's pitching like the ace he is."

From his Opening Day start in Yankee Stadium through Game 5 of the World Series, Lester has answered every challenge. Yes, 2012 was a fluke. No, he wasn't beginning the downside of his career. Yes, he could be a team's frontline pitcher.

On Monday night, he was supremely focused. He wasn't arguing calls, or showing frustration. Instead, he left that up the Cardinals' hitters.

Amid the noise and the excitement and the backdrop, Jon Lester was in his calm place: on the mound, in a big game.