BOSTON -- Three things we learned from the Red Sox' 6-0 victory over the Royals . . .
1. It's possible for Jon Lester to pitch even better than he had going into the All-Star break.
On Sunday he did it with a third pitch that hasn't often been featured as a significant part of his arsenal: his curveball.
Lester's always had one, but over the years it's been the clear No. 3 option behind his fastball and his at-times devastating cut-fastball. Against the Royals, it was the third consecutive start in which he's seemingly used his hook more frequently -- and with very good results.
"Today [it was] not as good as in the past, but it was there," Lester said. "I didn't feel like I had the real good one at the bottom of the zone. But they're such a good fastball-hitting team that really just kind of flipping it up there kind of slowed them down enough just to get them off of the fastball and the cutter so [the curve] was good enough today. Going back to my last start I probably had the best one I've had in a long long time, but overall it was good."
Catcher David Ross explained that even if Lester's curve isn't top-notch, it serves its purpose. Because it's thrown on the same plane as his fastball and his cutter, hitters have only a split-second to decide which way a pitch is going to dart as it approaches the plate.
"You don't know which way the ball is gonna go," Ross said. "Is it really going to be 93 [mph] at your hands? Or is it going to fall off? Or is it going to cut into you? And then he still has the other side of the plate so it all works together. It's not just one simple, 'His breaking ball is really good.' Yeah his breaking ball is really good but if he just threw breaking balls it wouldn't be."
Ross said that he called for Lester's curve early in counts to help put the breaks on Kansas City's approach, which for many of its hitters is to attack fastballs within the first few pitches of an at-bat.
Sprinkling in a curve with his cutter and four-seamer gives Lester a pitch-mix that has him throwing as well as anyone in baseball over the last month.
2. The left-field platoon has turned a corner.
While neither may be the long-term everyday power-hitting solution in left field for whom fans clamor, Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes have proven more than capable of getting the job done offensively in their platoon.
Nava had two hits was on base three times Sunday. He also had three RBI, including a two-run double in the third inning, continuing a stretch that has made him one of the team's best hitters since being recalled from Pawtucket on June 2.
In that nearly two-month stretch, he has a .421 on-base percentage and an average of .337. He's also hit safely in nine of his last 10 games.
Gomes, meanwhile, continues to mash lefthanded pitching. He had the go-ahead pinch-hit home run on Friday that beat the Royals in the series opener, and he's hitting .317/.415/.465 against southpaws on the season.
If those two can keep it up -- with Brock Holt mixed in every so often -- Boston will have put a sizable dent into the offensive woes that have befallen its outfield for much of this season.
3. The Red Sox believe they aren't out of the playoff hunt.
Even before their run of seven wins in their last eight games, the Red Sox spoke of how they weren't giving up on the season. But it was impossible to decipher as to whether that was their honest collective opinion or simply lip service.
AJ Pierzynski was designated for assignment, Jake Peavy was close to being dealt (and still may be), and the Red Sox had called up a handful of their top young prospects to see what they could do at the big-league level.
Players wouldn't say it, and neither would management, but it felt like they were unwrapping their white flag and getting ready to raise it.
Now? Not so much.
The team is 7.5 games out of the division lead and six games behind the Mariners for the second Wild Card spot in the American League.
They know they still have work to do, but the Red Sox are playing as well as they have at any point this season. They believe that if they can continue playing with this kind of consistency they'll have a chance.
"We need every win," Ross said. "It is nice. We need 'em all. It doesn't matter if we need to grind 'em out. It doesn't matter if we need to win by one or six. We need 'em all. If we can put together consistent games like we've been doing that's all we're looking for. There's no miracles that we can perform, we'll just go out there and play good solid baseball."