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A new gear: As September arrives, Jon Lester returns to peak form

09.04.13 at 1:41 am ET
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Over the last month, Jon Lester has strung together encouraging starts, giving the Red Sox a fair shot to win and lasting through the sixth inning in every outing since August 8.

But the seven innings he fired against the Tigers on Tuesday were different, more than just a step in the right direction. Tuesday was a return to a form Lester has rarely reached in recent years, let alone this season, and it came against arguably the most challenging opponent in the league.

Lester struck out nine, fanning all but one hitter in the Tigers’ formidable lineup at least once, without walking a batter for just the second time in his career. And while his focus was on Detroit’s hitters, not their starting pitcher, it’s worth noting that he also outdueled Max Scherzer, a strong candidate for the AL Cy Young.

Both pitchers went seven innings, with Lester allowing one run and Scherzer two. The wheels fell off for Scherzer near the end, though, as he gave up two walks and hit a batter between the seventh and eighth. Lester, on the other hand, may have been stronger in the seventh than in the first. While the Tigers tormented him by fouling off pitches and making him throw 25 in the first, he set them down on just 10 pitches in the seventh.

“He did it. He set the tone right from the start of the game,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “In that seventh inning, he probably knew that was going to be his last inning, and he made a couple of key pitches. … To finish off the seventh inning with who was coming up in the order, a very good game.”

Given Lester’s ups and downs this year, it’s hard to jump to conclusions based on approximately a month’s worth of starts. But with less than a month left in the regular season, he appears to be at his best, throwing as hard as he ever has (reaching 97 mph on the Fenway Park radar gun Tuesday) and pounding the strike zone, at least on Tuesday, in a way he’s rarely been able to.

“It’s been great to see him, post-All Star break, the way he’s thrown the ball, with the exception of the one game here against Arizona,” Farrell said. “I think everybody in our dugout feels it when he goes to the mound. And that can be said for [John] Lackey. That’s not to slight anybody. But Jon has stepped up in those games, and we needed to get back on the winning track. And he’s done just that.”

Both Farrell and Lester pointed to Miguel Cabrera‘s fifth-inning at-bat as the most important of the game. With the bases loaded after an error and a pair of singles, Lester fell behind 2-0 to Cabrera. After fouling off a fastball, Cabrera then chopped an inside cutter to short to end the inning.

“Obviously, I don’t want to be in that situation with him up,” Lester said. “But really, the biggest thing right there is just not giving up four. Best hitter on the planet and you’re trying to really minimize damage. And I fell behind 2-0, threw him a good fastball 2-0, got the 2-1, and was able to get a cutter up on his hands for a ground ball. So obviously that doesn’t happen too often with him, but I’ll take it.”

Lester had struggled with the cutter, once his signature pitch, earlier this year. He used it noticeably less in June, July and August than in April and May simply because it wasn’t getting results: opponents were hitting .303 and slugging .528 on the cutter between June and August.

On Tuesday, Lester threw five cutters for strike three, as well as the one that induced the inning-ending groundout from Cabrera. He said easing back on his usage of the pitch may now be helping him throw it more effectively.

“I’m in a better spot right now, I think, as far as going down the mound, which puts me in a better position for that pitch,” Lester said. “I think maybe taking a break from it for a little bit helped me. Maybe not trying to pound my head against the wall with it. It’s been good the last three, four, five starts. So keep riding it out.”

David Ross, who caught Lester, said the lefty’s breaking pitches helped set him apart on Tuesday. In addition to his cutter, Lester also picked up three strikeouts (two swinging) on his curveball, getting both Cabrera and Torii Hunter to take off-balance swings at it.

“He had probably a better breaking ball today than he has had,” Ross said. “His fastball location wasn’t as good as it has been for me, but he did such a good job with his cutter and fastball mix, and then his breaking ball. You know, he sped them up. He got those guys aggressive. He challenged them early on. He said hey, I’m going to pitch you in and really come after you. He did a great job of that.”

Lester has also seen his velocity increase over the last several starts. The Fenway Park radar gun clocked him as high as 97 mph on Tuesday, and he hit 96 several times. It’s not a striking jump, but he threw all of his pitches except his cutter slightly harder in August than he did in the rest of the season, and that trend seemed to continue on Tuesday, when the left-hander more than lived up to his billing as a power pitcher.

“He had it all going for him. He was throwing the ball hard. He had a good cutter going. He used both sides of the plate. He was terrific. He was absolutely terrific,” said Detroit manager Jim Leyland. “There’€™s nothing more to say about it.”

Farrell said the increased velocity hasn’t been particularly surprising to him, although it’s been encouraging.

“I think it speaks to his work ethic throughout the course of the year,” Farrell said. “Certain power pitchers are going to have the ability to not only maintain their arm slot, but you see some velocities climb in the second half of the season, and I don’t think this is uncommon for Jon. This has been somewhat who he is as a pitcher over the course of his big-league career. But again, you go back to the post-All Star break, we’ve seen it continue to inch up.”

Being able to touch 96 may make it easier for Lester to pitch aggressively to hitters like Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Ross said that willingness to pound the zone and move his pitches around was crucial on Tuesday.

“He has to be aggressive with his stuff, and he was tonight,” Ross said. “Fastballs in and out, against a really good team. The run we gave up, a line drive, [was] a good piece of hitting by Iggy. I thought it was a decent pitch. I think the hit before that kind of stunk, but he pitched out of some jams. ‘€¦ Will [Middlebrooks] made that error where the ball just kind of jumped up on him, and he pitched out of a jam there, which was a huge part of the game for us. I just wanted him to be aggressive, and he was, and he did a great job tonight.”

Increasingly, the Red Sox look like a team whose fortunes into and through October may rest heavily on the ability of their pitching staff to dominate. That is a function both of the team’s struggles against upper tier opposing pitchers this year and of the recent dominance of its pitchers. Since August 19, the Sox as a pitching staff own a 2.31 ERA. In other words, as a staff, they are performing to the level of an ace over the span of the past two weeks, and Lester himself has been a huge part of that at a crucial time, delivering what was likely his most impressive outing in years in a potential foreshadowing of a playoff scenario.

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