EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 30, 2008

Lester passes a big test

By Bill Burt

 

BOSTON — The Red Sox needed that.

Jon Lester really, really needed that.

While the Red Sox losing streak of five games ended dramatically here at Fenway Park, beating Toronto 1-0 on a walk-off single by Kevin Youkilis, Lester's personal streak of walks, mediocrity and frustration ended emphatically.

The winning pitcher in the World Series clincher in October, Lester has been all over the map this season, good, so-so, decent and a few more so-so performances.

While Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz have had some recent terrific performances, Lester has been anything but.

Remember, this was the guy the Red Sox refused to add to the deal with the Twins for Johan Santana. In case you're wondering, ladies, the Sox were willing to deal Jacoby Ellsbury, with a few other talented youngsters, ahead of Lester.

But general manager Theo Epstein, manager Terry Francona, pitching coach John Farrell and catcher Jason Varitek apparently saw something we haven't been able to see through so many of Lester's walk-laden, frustrating efforts.

Part of the problem is age. Lester turned 24 in January. Add in the fact that he has been compared to Sandy Koufax — OK, I realize it was flighty Sox pitcher Julian Tavarez who made the comparison — and expectations can sometimes be unrealistic.

"The thing I really like about him is he appears to want to be great," said Varitek, whose voice is still about half of its normal volume due to the flu bug that had him bedridden for four days.

"But he's still learning. He's learning about himself. Heck, I'm still learning about him."

As we saw last night, Lester has a very good fastball and a good slider. He's been flirting with a change-up this season and last night he threw as many as he has thrown all year.

But what he did last night was stay out of jams that he has been famous for.

You know the kind: a walk, followed by a walk, followed by a double, followed by a visit from Farrell.

No at-bat epitomized his performance last night better than the first batter of the game, Alex Rios.

Lester threw three straight balls to Rios, a star in the making, before coming back with two strikes and then inducing a groundout.

Lester walked a batter in the second and fourth innings, respectively, but both were with two outs.

The first and only hit Lester allowed was a leadoff single in the fifth to Lyle Overbay, inches over Dustin Pedroia's outstretched glove. The next pitch, a fastball outside, induced a double play.

What made last night even more special, beyond snapping the losing streak, was the fact that the other pitcher, Roy Halladay, was equally dominant. Through seven innings, Halladay had induced 10 easy groundouts to shortstop.

"Any time you go up against a pitcher like Halladay, you know it's going to be a long night," said Lester. "It definitely helps your mindset going into the game, to keep your team close, give them a chance."

Lester's pitch count, the bain of his existence, was consistently about 12 pitches per inning, about five or six pitches fewer than his 2008 average.

Lester left the game after throwing 97 pitches through eight innings.

"I could have pitched another (inning)," he said. "Sure, you never want to come out of the game."

Francona, though, has been extra careful with the "kids" throughout his tenure. And leaving after eight innings, allowing only one hit, is a mental victory Lester admits he really needed.

"Sure, there are times when you're doubting yourself," said Lester.

It turned out being a great move by Francona. He brought in Jonathan Papelbon, who ignited the park with two strikeouts before being saved by Pedroia's diving stop of a sure single up the middle, with a man on second, to end the inning.

The walk-off single by Youkilis, knocking in David Ortiz (walk) from second base finished the job.

Papelbon got the win, but everybody knows who the biggest winner was last night.

"Everybody needs a confidence boost once in a while," said Varitek. "I know I do sometimes. Jon was very good. He probably feels good about himself right now. I know I would."

 

You can e-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.

 

:::::::::::::::::::::::#

 

 

Sox-Blue Jays wrap-up

 

Play of the game: In the top of the ninth inning, with a man on second base, Dustin Pedroia snared a sharp grounder that appeared to be going to centerfield. He got up and threw out Vernon Wells to end the inning, setting up Kevin Youkilis' eventual game-winner.

Stat of the game: 2:18 — The amount of time it took to play a nine-inning game, the shortest the Sox have played this season.

You don't say: "He lays it on the line, man, he bleeds," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons of his hard-luck losing starter Roy Halladay. "That's why he's the best."

Stat of the game II: Both starting pitchers, Jon Lester and Halladay, each threw 97 pitches through eight innings last night.

Stellar starting: Lester's eight innings of shutout ball marked the third straight start by a Red Sox pitcher going at least seven innings.

Two broken streaks: The Sox had gone 21 innings without a run before Kevin Youkilis' game-winning RBI single with two out in the ninth. The Sox had lost seven straight to the Blue Jays before last night.