BOSTON Getting through the month of April successfully has not been easy in the past for Jon Lester. Before this year he had posted a record of 3-6 with a 4.76 ERA for the first month of the season.
Those difficulties, it appears, are in the past.
This year, Lester has not needed a one-month delay to jumpstart his season. After Tuesday nights 7-3 win over the Angels at Fenway Park, he improved to 4-1 with a 2.33 ERA. He went seven innings, allowing one run a Mark Trumbo home run in the second inning with six hits, one walk, and 11 strikeouts, a season high. It was the 15th double-digit strikeout performance of Lesters career.
I think its really encouraging, manager Terry Francona said of Lesters strong start to the season, because the last couple years Aprils been so tough for him, and once he seems to find it he doesnt lose it. I think thats really good news. Tuesday night he went out and established his fastball and used it a lot. Hes got so many different weapons and I think I said in spring training, when he knows he can repeat his pitches hes a different pitcher.
Against the Angels on Tuesday, though, Lester was much the same pitcher he was against them in Anaheim last month when he shut them out through six innings. Of four wins this season, two have come at the expense of the Angels. In 13 combined innings he has allowed just one run on 10 hits with 3 walks and 19 strikeouts.
Lester had at least one strikeout in each inning Tuesday, and recorded all three outs in the seventh, his final inning, on K's (with a Jeff Mathis single in the mix). It was his fourth straight win and sixth straight quality start in seven outings. In four of his starts, he has struck out eight or more, joining only Detroits Justin Verlander, the Cubs Matt Garza, and Philadelphias Cole Hamels with at least four such games this season.
Just was able to repeat a good rhythm, good effort level, didn't really overthrow a lot of balls tonight, Lester said. So that part was good. Kept that same effort level pretty much through the whole game.
Lester threw just 93 pitches (66 for strikes), the fewest he has thrown since 88 over 5 13 innings on Opening Day in Texas. He felt strong enough to continue, but without a day off until May 12, Francona opted to be cautious.
I just think we got to take care of him, Francona said. Were going through a stretch here where there arent any days off and hes throwing pretty hard and its early. So just want to take care of him.
The Sox offense could do little against the Angels' Dan Haren, until the third time through the order, in the sixth inning, when they scored two runs to give Lester a precarious one-run lead. The Sox bats broke the game open in the seventh and eighth, scoring a combined five runs off Haren and reliever Hisanori Takahashi.
Sometimes its nice to sit in the dugout for a while and watch guys do what they did in the eighth Lester said. But its fun to have those battles every once in a while, to see whos going to make the first mistake. I did early. Just try to hang around as best we could, keep them within striking distance. Guys did a good job of grinding at-bats out. Haren did a good job early on, too. Our offense did a great job grinding at-bats, waiting for that one opportunity to strike and we did and we took advantage of it and its always fun to see.
That kind of a battle is not always appreciated by everyone.
Im glad Lester likes it, because I sure as heck dont, said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But its fun. Its fun to sit back there and make every pitch count, which he does anyways. Just to see him come out on top is great.
Saltalamacchia has caught six of Lesters seven starts this season and has watched the left-hander get stronger with each.
His bullpen before he came in the game, he was a little rough and wasnt sure and didnt have a feel, Saltalamacchia said. And as soon as the lights turned on and they said play ball, he was right there. But . . . definitely, every start's looking better and better.
With Lester starting strong not needing to find it as Francona mentioned it can only bode well for the Sox.
I dont feel any different compared to years past at the beginning of the season, Lester said. Like Ive always said, its about executing pitches and Ive had -- except for this year -- yet to do that at the beginning of the season. I was able to do that, velocity came a little bit earlier than normal. So I think that helps. Feel for a changeup helps. Theres different things that help. But at the same time its about execution. I didn't do that in years past and fortunately have been able to do that this year.
Maureen Mullen is on Twitter athttp:twitter.commaureenamullen