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For Jon Lester, struggle yields promise — and a win

04.25.13 at 12:03 am ET
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It was a different game for Jon Lester than any other he’d pitched this year. His frustration — with himself, with the strike zone — became visible at times. The execution and ability to attack the strike zone were inconsistent.

It was precisely the sort of game that often got away from the 2012 edition of the left-hander. On Wednesday, however, Lester overcame some rough patches and gave his team a chance to win. In perhaps his biggest test during what has otherwise been a phenomenal April, he achieved a sort of “bend not break” outcome,  showing the ability to win a game where he doesn’t have his best stuff in the Red Sox‘ 6-5 victory over the Athletics.

Lester had already shown the ability to dominate this year through his first four starts. But on Wednesday, another facet of his game was on display — the ability to adapt to something other than his A-game. That trait, in some ways, may be an even more important indicator of his ability to reclaim the form that made him a two-time All-Star and one of the top left-handed pitchers in the game.

“Those are the things that I think give [Lester] an opportunity to have a big year,” manager John Farrell said of the ability to stop his struggles from snowballing. “Jon has solidified his delivery to where he’s able to make adjustments inside the game, and that was the case today.”

The lefty battled through 5 2/3 innings, walking a season-high six hitters and allowing a season-high three runs. He gave up his first home run of the year (a three-run shot to Chris Young), tied a season-high with 115 pitches thrown and also allowed more than five hits for the first time in 2013.

Still, after he permitted the homer to Young, Lester settled. The Sox rallied for three runs in the bottom of the inning, Lester produced his first (and only) clean inning of the game in the fifth and the Sox tacked on three more runs to give him a 6-3 lead when he returned to the mound for the sixth.

That frame proved the pivotal one. Lester gave up a leadoff double to Josh Donaldson, but responded immediately by striking out both Brandon Moss and Young. With two outs, he then nearly completed his escape act against Nate Freiman. On a 2-2 pitch, Lester thought he caught the corner with a cutter; home plate ump Mike Estabrook disagreed, and Lester — who had taken a few steps towards the dugout — kicked his leg in frustration. When he missed with his next pitch to walk Freiman, Lester fumed.

“I just kept trying to pound the strike zone. We didn’€™t get one of those all day really, on the outside corner with the backdoor cutter. We kept trying to go to it. It just never was a strike,” explained Lester. ‘€œI mean, once or twice it’€™s easy. After a while, it’€™s frustrating to the point of, you keep making your pitches. It is what it is. It’€™s a ball, regardless. That’€™s the biggest thing, is just the frustration builds up. One or two, or three or four here and there is one thing. Through the course of a game like that to continually happen, it’€™s frustrating. I’€™m an emotional person, always have been, and it’€™s tough to control that sometimes.

“We just had to keep executing pitches off of that and really just try to minimize damage,” he added. “[I] was able to do that.”

Still, he couldn’t escape the sixth. Andy Parrino‘s swinging bunt single loaded the bases, and so, with the game in the balance and Lester at 115 pitches, Farrell turned the game over to Junichi Tazawa, who got a flyout to deep left from Coco Crisp. Lester’s outing was officially in the books.

With the win, Lester moves to 4-0 on the year and his ERA stands at 2.27. It took him until June 16 to reach four wins last season, and this is the first time Lester has won four April starts in his career. Typically being a slow starter has not fazed the two-time All-Star, as he is now tied for the American League lead in wins with teammate Clay Buchholz. The Sox are 5-0 in his starts.

The prospect of Lester having back-to-back sub-par performances is not likely, but Farrell has to leave the door open to that possibility. He may now be able to find a bit of comfort in knowing his ace can give a gutsy effort and still give the team a chance to win in 2013.

Read More: John Farrell, Jon Lester, junichi tazawa,
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