Where was this in the first half from Lester, Gonzo?


Where was this in the first half from Lester, Gonzo?

NEW YORK -- This is how the Red Sox hoped it would go back in April, when hopes were high and six months of baseball were still laid out in front of them:

Jon Lester would pitch well and win big games and Adrian Gonzalez would provide extra-base hits and produce the way he did in the first half of 2011.

And so it was on Saturday, when Lester limited the powerful Yankee lineup to a single run over seven innings and Gonzalez smacked a two-run homer in the top of the first.

When someone asked Bobby Valentine if this is what he thought he had from two key performers earlier in the year, Valentine said: "We still have it. We just haven't used it as often. We saved it up.''

If the Red Sox hadn't score again -- they did, with a Nick Punto double in the fifth and, with the aid of a wild pitch, again in the eighth -- it would have been enough for Lester, who improved to 7-10.

It was Lester's second consecutive strong start, coming on the heels of a six-inning, one-run performance last Sunday in Cleveland. In point of fact, it was his fifth straight decent start, part of a second-half turnaround that began last month when the Sox last visited the Bronx.

Over the last five starts, Lester's ERA is 3.48, more in keeping with what the lefthander's career ERA was (3.53) at the start of this season.

Gonzalez, too, has had a second-half renaissance. He leads all American Leaguers in RBI in August with 22 and has been named AL Player of the Week twice since the All-Star break. Since June 23, he has the best batting average in the American League, with a .380 batting average.

Most telling, perhaps, is his slugging percentage, which was an anemic .416 before the All-Star break, but is a smoldering .618 since the start of the second half of the season.

In the team's first 89 games, Gonzalez had just six homers; in the last 32, he has eight. And thanks to his recent surge, he now ranks fifth in the A.L. in RBI with 84.

Here's the problem, however: while both Lester and Gonzalez have turned their individual seasons around in recent weeks, it's too late to help the Red Sox turn theirs.

They were needed in the first half, when injuries hit and the club sputtered.

But it wasn't until mid-June that Lester won his fourth game of the year and it wasn't until the last month that Gonzalez began doing damage at the plate.

Neither Lester nor Gonzalez can provide much in the way of explanation for their recent spurts. Manager Bobby Valentine believes that Lester is throwing his curveball harder and is benefiting from better luck, continually citing Lester's abnormally high BABIP (batting average with balls in play) as evidence of the breaks that have gone against him.

Lester, never one for self-analysis, shrugs off the improvements to "better execution'' of pitches and other generalities.

"Results are all that matter,'' he said.

For much of the year, Gonzalez has seemed almost indifferent to his numbers, emphasizing that, by the end of the year, he'll have an on-base percentage of .400 or so, a slugging percentage in the neighborhood of .500and an OPS of .900.

And sure enough, he's getting there. His OBP is at .352 and his slugging is up to .477. By the end of the year, he may well reach his goal.

But the Red Sox won't. And the first-half drop-offs by Lester and Gonzalez are, let's face it, partly to blame.

Kelly's a potential weapon in the Red Sox bullpen

Kelly's a potential weapon in the Red Sox bullpen

Joe Kelly’s ascent to the eighth inning has been pretty darn rapid.

Tyler Thornburg’s questionable right shoulder and the loss of other relievers elsewhere -- remember Koji Uehera, now of the World Champion Cubs? -- have thrown him into the spotlight.

That doesn’t make Kelly anything close to a certainty, though.

Entering spring training, even Craig Kimbrel, one of the very best closers around, faced some doubt after control flare-ups a year ago.

In Kelly, the Sox have an overpowering righty who couldn’t harness his stuff in the past. Someone who conspired with Clay Buchholz in making the Red Sox rotation look dismal midseason.

Kelly’s ineffectiveness last year, in fact, was one of the reasons they traded for Drew Pomeranz on July 14. And, logically, one of the reasons the Red Sox did not want to subsequently rescind the trade for Pomeranz.

The last start Kelly made with the Red Sox (and possibly in his big-league career) was on June 1 against the Orioles. He allowed seven runs in 2 1/3 innings and was immediately demoted.

He didn’t make it back to Boston until late July.

The best reasons to believe in Kelly now, in Thornburg’s absence, are straightforward: he was awesome at the end of last year, and he is overpowering.

In an eye-opening September, he held hitters to a .180 average in 14 innings. He gave up one earned run, carrying a 0.64 ERA, struck out 20 and walked just three.

That’s awesome potential.

He’s always had that, if nothing else, though: potential. What’s to say Kelly lives up to it? He might. There’s just not a lot to hang your hat on.

In eight innings this spring, Kelly has as many walks, seven, as he does strikeouts.

“The point we’re trying to stress to him, no one in this game is perfect,” Sox manager John Farrell told reporters Monday, including the Boston Herald. “He doesn’t have to be perfect with every pitch located. He has premium stuff. Trust it, and get ahead in the count a little bit more frequently.”

Early in spring training, Kelly talked about how he was still learning on the job, as you’d expect. That’s going to continue to be the case, and he'll continue to have to prove he's at last arrived.

As expected, Red Sox send Swihart to Pawtucket

As expected, Red Sox send Swihart to Pawtucket

Blake Swihart wasn't going to win a job. Monday merely made that official.

Swihart was optioned out as the Red Sox made further cuts, sending a player who could still be the Red Sox catcher of the future -- well, one of them anyway -- to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he's expected to work on his receiving.

Swihart hit .325 in 40 Grapefruit League at-bats.

"Had a very strong camp and showed improvements defensively. Swung the bat very well," manager John Farrell told reporters in Florida.  "For the player that he is and the person that he is, you love him as a person. He's a hell of a talented player.

"He made some subtle adjustments with his setup [defensively]. That gave him a different look to pitchers on the mound. Pitchers talked positively about the look that they got from him behind the plate. I think it softened his hands somewhat to receive the ball better. And there were a number of occasions where he was able to get a pitchers' pitch called for a strike, so the presentation of the umpire was a little bit more subtle and consistent then maybe years' past."

Sandy Leon's hot hitting in 2016 earned him an automatic crack at the lead catching spot for this year. Combined with the fact that Christian Vazquez looks great defensively, went deep on Sunday and is out of options, Swihart was the obvious odd man out.

He had options, the others didn't.

Deven Marrero was also optioned to Pawtucket. Sam Travis -- who, like Swihart, could break camp with the 2018 team -- was reassigned to minor-league camp, as was catcher Dan Butler.

The Sox have 38 players left in camp, 32 from the 40-man roster.