EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 16, 2013

Lester, Buchholz could be quite the postseason 1-2 punch

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — BOSTON — Jon Lester looked happy before yesterday’s Red Sox/Yankees game, playing the air guitar while chatting with catcher David Ross.

Lester hardly has been the happiest of men over the past year or two, mainly because he hasn’t pitched well. Seriously, he often has looked downright miserable.

But right now, he is pitching great and on top of the world ... And Clay Buchholz is back and pitching darn good, too.

Don’t forget — Lester and Buchholz are the main reason the Red Sox won 18 games in April.

The duo combined for a 9-0 record during the first month. Then, around mid-May/early-June, they disappeared. Buchholz missed three months with a strain of his right bursa sac while Lester pitched as ineffectively as he did during his dismal 2012 season, the worst year of his career.

But both are back looking strong and pitching very well at the perfect time ... with the Red Sox furiously driving into the playoffs full steam ahead.

Lester earned the win Saturday against the Yankees here at Fenway Park. Buchholz, who returned from the disabled list last week, earned the victory here yesterday to cap a sweep of New York.

The Red Sox won 9-2 last night behind Buchholz’s 6.0 strong innings. The dominant righty allowed just one run, which was unearned, on two hits and four walks while striking out three.

Buchholz has allowed just one run, no earned runs, in 11.0 innings (two starts) since returning from the DL. How can a pitcher immediately be so sharp after missing three months?

When asked if he was surprised by Buchholz’s sharpness with all his pitches so far, Ross said, “I think there was just that mystery of having that much time off. I don’t know if I was surprised. It was just more the unknown.”

The southpaw Lester, whose ERA was a dismal 4.52 on Aug. 2, has earned a quality start in each of his past eight outings during which he has an incredible 1.86 ERA. The stretch has dropped his overall ERA to 3.75.

Ross said Lester is pitching better because of improved command of his fastball.

“And his mentality and his confidence has grown as he has been pitching well,” Ross said. “That’s all it takes is a little confidence. But for me, his fastball command is what is the key for him. All of the times I’ve caught him he really locates his fastball and he’s stayed aggressive.”

When struggling, Lester was nibbling around the plate too much and he’d get agitated with umpires when they didn’t give him strike calls on close pitches. He showed his emotions on the mound.

Maybe the ugliest of starts he had was against Tampa Bay on June 11 when he walked seven batters and walked in the Rays’ first run.

He has just three walks combined in his past three starts. And he threw 81 of his 111 pitches (73 percent) for strikes in his victory over Detroit earlier this month.

“I think the best pitchers in baseball take their stuff and throw it over the plate,” Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves said when discussing Lester. “The guys with elite stuff repeat it and pound the strike zone with all their stuff. The best pitchers in baseball, even if you have average stuff (on a given day), you throw it over the plate and you have a chance.”

With Boston’s magic number down to four — and the Sox possibly clinching the AL East this week, manager John Farrell will have the luxury to set up his playoff rotation as he sees best fit.

Lester likely will start Game 1 of the ALDS considering his postseason experience and resume. He has a 2.57 ERA in eight postseason games, including six starts.

Right now, the Game 2 starter seems to be a toss up between Buchholz and John Lackey.

Lackey has been the Sox’ best pitcher for most of the summer, but he has a 6.52 ERA in his past three starts. If Lackey doesn’t pitch better in his last couple outings, Buchholz very well could take that No. 2 position.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in all of our starting pitchers,” Ross said. “We wouldn’t be in the position we are and been as consistent as we are if we don’t have some of the best starting pitching in the game. I don’t worry about who pitches Game 1 or who pitches Game 2 or 3. I have a lot of confidence in Buck and Lack and Lester, (Jake) Peavy, Demp (Ryan Dempster), (Felix) Doubront — the whole group.”

Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB