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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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Jon Lester maintained his career 2.35 postseason ERA in beating the Rays. (AP)

Jon Lester maintained his career 2.35 postseason ERA in beating the Rays. (AP)

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.

“Just being involved in more playoff games at a younger age, you, through experience, learn how to handle these situations,” Lester said. “And 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.

“I thought it was a pretty good pitch,” Lester said. “I 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.

“What 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. “That’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.

“That’s not the case right now,” Maddon said. “He’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: “What 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.

“We’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.

“That’s as powerful stuff as Jon has had for us all year long,” Farrell said. “And it came at a very good time.”

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