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Closing Time: Jon Lester verges on an unexpected sort of perfection as Red Sox shut out Blue Jays

05.10.13 at 9:56 pm ET
By

Jon Lester

This was Jon Lester, pitcher.

For much of his career, the foundation of Lester’s ability to dominate opponents has been overpowering stuff. He elicited swings and misses in bunches, thanks to a complete mix capable of making opponents look silly — the mid-90s fastball, the biting cutter, the sharp curve and a changeup. In games where he was on, double-digit strikeout totals seemed not only possible but likely.

That wasn’t what transpired on Friday. Instead, Lester lived the life of a pitching real estate agent. While he didn’t have swing and miss stuff, his execution and, more importantly, location seemed just about flawless in a game where Lester flirted with perfection before settling for his first complete-game shutout in almost five years, as the Red Sox stifled the Blue Jays, 5-0.

Lester retired the first 17 Blue Jays hitters of the game before Maicer Izturis collected Toronto’s first and only hit, a line drive down the left field line for a double with two outs in the sixth. But at a time when he and the Sox were clinging to a 1-0 lead, Lester collected himself and recovered, after initially falling behind 3-0 to Adam Lind, struck out the Blue Jays pinch-hitter on a 94 mph fastball that represented one of his only swinging strikes of the game.

The left-hander had just five strikeouts and seven swings and misses on the night. Yet he was constantly either down in the strike zone or on the hands of the Blue Jays lineup, resulting in a litany of poor contact (12 groundball outs, 2 infield pop-outs, a few well-placed liners at his infielders) that resulted in the pitcher’s first complete-game shutout since 2008 (when he recorded the only two shutouts of his career).

He permitted just Izturis to reach base, with the one baserunner allowed representing a career low. Lester employed just 118 pitches (79 strikes) in his mastery of Toronto.

With the win, he improved to 5-0 with a 2.73 ERA. More importantly, for a Sox team that had lost six of seven, he gave them precisely what they needed to restore a sense of security to a team that had been out of sorts for the previous week.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

– As spectacular as Lester’s performance was, a case can be made that Will Middlebrooks‘ game was comparably phenomenal. The third baseman is still dealing with evident discomfort in the aftermath of his collision with David Ross, yet he managed not only drive in the first Sox run (albeit on what should have been a double play) and to collect a pair of doubles (his first game with multiple extra-base hits since April 7 against the Blue Jays) but also to make play after play at third base, where he had seven assists and a pair of putouts (one on a sharp liner, the other on a pop up).

Dustin Pedroia remains in a torrid stretch at the plate. He went 2-for-3 with a walk and an RBI. In the first five games of the current Sox homestand, he’s 10-for-20 with a .500/.565/.700 line.

Shane Victorino had a pair of singles and walked twice in five plate appearances, marking the second time he’s reached base four times in a game with the Sox and, in the process, lifting his OBP to .375. That’s considerably higher than both his career OBP entering this year (.341) and his previous career high (.358 during his All-Star season of 2009).

Daniel Nava continued his strong May, going 1-for-3 with a two-run, two-out double in the bottom of the seventh that broke open what had been a tense 2-0 game. Nava also walked, and now is hitting .320/.438/.560 in the current month.

Jacoby Ellsbury twice could not deliver with two outs and runners in scoring position, grounding out to second and flying to shallow left. He’s now failed to score or drive in a run in a career-long stretch of eight games. Moreover, he’s now 2-for-15 with a walk and both singles with runners in scoring position dating to April 20. However, the center fielder gave the Sox some insurance late when he snapped an 0-for-13 stretch with a sharp single to set in motion the rally that gave the Sox breathing room after they’d spent the entire game clinging to a 1-0 lead. He finished 1-for-5.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

– The Red Sox had plenty of opportunities but failed to capitalize on them, going 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position before breaking through in their four-run seventh. They finished the game 3-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

David Ortiz, after grounding into a double play in his first plate appearance, snapped a streak of 14 consecutive plate appearances without reaching base when he was intentionally walked in the bottom of the third inning. Ortiz thus avoided matching his career-long streak of three starts without reaching base.

Still, he ended up going 0-for-3 (including an ugly strikeout against Brett Cecil with runners on the corners and no outs in the seventh inning) and is now 0-for-16 with just the one walk in his last 17 plate appearances.

Mike Napoli‘s struggles continued, as the Sox first baseman went 0-for-4, including grounding into an inning-ending double play with runners on the corners and one out in the fifth and striking out in a similar situation in the seventh. In his last nine games, Napoli now has driven in just one run while hitting .176/.243/.235.

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