Lester turns in strong outing to lift Sox past Jays
Backed by seven-run frame, lefty in complete control until jamming hip
BOSTON -- If only for a moment during the Red Sox's 7-4 victory over the Blue Jays on a misty Thursday night at Fenway Park, the pitching woes of Jon Lester looked like they would continue.
In the opening at-bat of the night, he labored through control issues -- eventually missing on four fastballs -- and issued a leadoff walk to the speedy Jose Reyes. Three more misplaced pitches later, Lester was down 3-0 to slugger Jose Bautista.
Lester's nightmarish June, it seemed, was destined to continue.
However, Lester regrouped. He touched his toes, picked up the rosin bag and ascended back atop the mound.
From then on, he took control. He got Bautista to lazily pop up a 94-mph fastball to left field and forced Edwin Encarnacion to roll over on a changeup for an inning-ending double play.
Lester needed just nine pitches to retire Toronto in order in the second, seven pitches to do the same in the third and, courtesy of another double-play ball from Encarnacion, the lefty again faced just three batters in the fourth. It wasn't until Melky Cabrera's single up the middle in the fifth inning that the Blue Jays earned their first of five hits they mustered against Lester on the evening.
"I think more than anything, going out and putting a zero up in the first inning gave him a chance to get into a little bit of a rhythm, particularly the ground-ball double play to end the first," manager John Farrell said. "From that point [on], he looked relaxed on the mound, and as aggressive as Toronto is, he was able to get a number of early outs."
The strong outing was perhaps more welcomed than normal for the Red Sox. Mired in a pitching slump for much of the past month, Lester had just one quality start in his last seven outings and an 8.44 ERA in June.
But Lester made some slight changes in his mechanics after his last start in Detroit. To get in a better rhythm, he started moving his hands more before he got set and he slowed down his overall approach to improve the timing of his delivery.
The altered approach worked. Thursday's performance looked more like the Lester who was one of the best pitchers in baseball and a workhorse for the Red Sox's pitching staff with a 6-0 record and 2.72 ERA in his first nine starts.
"I think that was the biggest thing for me tonight, was just how we were able to stay down in the zone throughout the entire night," Lester said. "So yeah, I was really happy with how I threw the ball tonight."
Lester gave up four runs Thursday and needed just 94 pitches to get through seven-plus innings while striking out five and walking three. The outing wasn't perfect. During his slump, Lester struggled to retire batters with two outs and runners on base, and in the fifth, a two-out double from Maicer Izturis scored two. Lester started the eighth inning, but after giving up a pair of singles to Rajai Davis and Izturis and falling behind 3-0 to Emilio Bonifacio, Lester jammed his right hip, sending a "zinging sensation" down his leg. Junichi Tazawa came on in relief and allowed two inherited runners to score.
Lester was walking normally in the clubhouse following the game, and after meeting with the team doctors, he does not expect to miss his next start.
"I actually feel fine now," he said. "Walking off the field, it just kind of stays with you for a little while. And then after the docs looked at me, I feel normal, so hopefully that'll carry over tomorrow and we won't have to worry about it."
One big inning was all it took for the Red Sox to give Lester a comfortable lead. After being retired in order in the first, Boston erupted for seven runs and seven hits in the second, including a two-run homer from Dustin Pedroia that landed in the first row of the Green Monster Seats. It was Pedroia's fifth dinger of the year and his first since May 27, a span of 110 at-bats.
The Red Sox batted 11 times in the lucrative second inning and Toronto starter Chien-Ming Wang, who was riding a personal streak of 16 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run entering the game, was pulled with two outs in the frame.
"That second inning, the ball was coming up and they didn't miss them," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "With a good pitcher, they're not going to cough up 7-0 leads. We made a little run. You're never really out of it in this ballpark, but [Lester] is too good out there. It was too much to overcome."
For the second straight night, Koji Uehara came out in the ninth for a save situation and retired the side in order.
With the win, Lester's record improves to 8-4 with a 4.61 ERA. The Blue Jays, who won 12 of 14 game heading into Thursday, now fall to 39-39, 7 1/2 games behind the first-place Red Sox in the American League East.