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Powerful tone: Jon Lester dials it up, dominates Rays in Red Sox’ Game 1 win

10.04.13 at 8:51 pm ET
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Almost exactly four years ago, a 25-year-old Jon Lester took to the Angel Stadium mound for what at the time was a regular occurrence in his young major league career: a playoff game. It was the eighth time in a span of 25 months he had pitched in such a contest, but the result left much to be desired. Lester gave up three runs in six innings as the Angels came away with a tone-setting 5-0 decision in the first of three straight wins.

Friday evening at Fenway Park, though, it was Lester ‘€” four years older, four years wiser ‘€” doing the tone-setting. The left-hander struck out the first four batters he faced en route to a 12-2 win over the Rays in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, the Sox’€™ first shot at the postseason since ‘€™09 against Los Angeles.

Lester lasted 7 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on three hits and three walks while striking out seven.

According to Lester, it was somewhat a product of his previous postseason experiences, even though it had been a while since he found himself it that situation.

‘€œJust being involved in more playoff games at a younger age, you, through experience, learn how to handle these situations,’€ Lester said. ‘€œAnd a perfect example is today. As long as I kept them close enough, our guys were going to figure out [Tampa Bay lefty Matt Moore], and we were able to do that.’€

The strong outing wasn’€™t without mistakes, however. Lester was trying to make it five strikeouts in two innings when he dropped in a 2-2 changeup for what he and a couple of Red Sox infielders thought was a called third strike ‘€” they took step toward the Sox dugout ‘€” to Sean Rodriguez.

Home plate umpire Chris Guccione disagreed.

‘€œI thought it was a pretty good pitch,’€ Lester said. ‘€œI asked him [after the inning] ‘€¦ did it miss in or where he had it. And he just said it was borderline down. And he had it down. So nothing you can do after that.’€

Except what Lester did do after that ‘€” serve up a 95 mph four-seamer that Rodriguez sent into the Monster seats ‘€” gave the Rays a 1-0 advantage. Ben Zobrist added a solo homer of his own in the top of the fourth before Lester settled down for good.

The Red Sox took a 5-2 lead in the bottom of the fourth, and while Moore threw 33 pitches, thanks in large part to a number of defensive miscues behind him, Lester sat and watched ‘€” and focused.

Lester returned after the long wait to retire the side on 11 pitches.

‘€œWhat was arguably as big an inning [as striking out the side in the first] was after we scored the five runs, to come out and put up a zero,’€ manager John Farrell said. ‘€œThat’€™s the most important thing in the game, is to keep up the momentum and put up a zero, and we were able to come back and with three more runs in that inning.’€

It was the first of three straight perfect innings for Lester, who saw that run end when he hit a bit of a wall in the eighth and walked two of the first three he faced.

By that point, Lester’€™s fastball was sitting 92-94 mph, a far cry from the 97 Wil Myers saw in the first inning.

“That first inning was powerful,” said Farrell, “and something that we probably haven’t seen in a couple of years’ time.”

What mattered to Rays manager Joe Maddon was that Lester, the owner of a 4.32 ERA and 1.44 WHIP against Tampa Bay in 2013, was able to locate his fastball, a facet he struggled with at times this season.

‘€œThat’€™s not the case right now,’€ Maddon said. ‘€œHe’€™s throwing his fastball where he wants to, the cutter’€™s outstanding. He just had a really good fastball. He came out there on 97.’€

Added Farrell: ‘€œWhat we’€™ve seen throughout the course of this year is Jon has ironed out his delivery to where when he’€™s got added adrenaline or emotion, he’€™s still able to channel it in the right way and not sacrifice location with his stuff.

‘€œWe’€™ve seen a number of starts in the second half where once he settles in and he creates such a good rhythm ‘€” that rhythm and balance in his delivery is what allows him to sustain that power throughout when he’€™s out there. It’€™s made his cutter more effective. His change-up got some swings and misses because of increased velocity to his fastball.’€

Lester now sports a 2.54 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in nine postseason games, and in the process of tossing the longest playoff outing of his career, he gave himself a very, very good chance of getting another crack at it. Teams that take a 1-0 lead in a Division Series are 51-21 since the round’€™s conception in 1995.

‘€œThat’€™s as powerful stuff as Jon has had for us all year long,’€ Farrell said. ‘€œAnd it came at a very good time.’€

Read More: John Farrell, Jon Lester, Matt Moore,
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