CLEVELAND — Of the many mysteries surrounding the frustrating 2012 Red Sox, none have been more confounding than Jon Lester.
The 28-year-old lefthander was one of the best starters in the game for six seasons. He had a high winning percentage, a low earned run average, and helped pitch the Sox to a World Series title.
All that vanished last September as Lester melted down along with the rest of the rotation. His slump continued deep into this season.
Lester went into Sunday’s start against Cleveland tied for the second-most losses in the American League and with an earned run average of 5.36, nearly two full runs higher than what his career mark had been.
“You know what? It sounds bad but there comes a point where you just need to forget about your stats and worry about trying to keep your team in the game,” Lester said. “That’s where I’ve kind of come to. Just keep them in the game as best I can. It’s one of those deals, you just have to go pitch.”
Perhaps it was that freedom that allowed Lester to pitch so well against the Indians. An avalanche of run support didn’t hurt, either, as the Sox enjoyed a 14-1 victory at Progressive Field.
Lester allowed one run over six innings and struck out 12, one shy of his career best.
Adrian Gonzalez was 2 for 3 with a home run, a double, and four RBIs. Carl Crawford added three doubles and three RBIs as the Sox collected 16 hits against five Cleveland pitchers.
The significant development for the struggling Sox was Lester’s return to form. The lefthander has pitched better of late, showing command of his fastball and more willingness to attack hitters. But the results were spotty, his last victory coming on June 27.
“My confidence never strayed. I know what kind of pitcher I am. I think I’ve proven that,” said Lester, now 6-10. “I knew that my stuff was there.”
This time, he got the proof and walked away with a smile. Cleveland hitters swung and missed at 20 of his pitches, an unusually high number for six innings. Of equal importance was the mix of pitches that produced those bad swings. Five were on curveballs and five more on cut fastballs. He even got two on sinkers.
Manager Bobby Valentine marveled at how Lester’s curveball started out in the strike zone and dived out. In previous starts, Lester tried to drop it in for a strike.
“To pitch well and get a win is something that could get him on a roll. That’s what we need,” Valentine said. “The answer is to get him some runs. Get them early and get them often. He’s pitched a lot of close games where we haven’t scored a lot of runs.”
Lester had a 3-0 lead when he took the mound in the first inning thanks to a two-run homer from Gonzalez. But he was far from comfortable.
Jason Donald and Asdrubal Cabrera started the inning with singles. With one out, Carlos Santana drove in Donald with a sacrifice fly.
Lester walked Shelley Duncan to continue the inning before getting Brent Lillibridge to ground into a force at second. In all, Lester threw 27 pitches but allowed one run.
“That was big,” he said. “Limit damage. I feel like I made some good pitches and they did a good job of hitting. To minimize it to one run in that situation, that’s what I’ve been kind of missing all year, those innings where I’m able to shut them down and maybe concede one depending on the situation. For the most part this year it’s been three or four or five.”
The rest of his outing was a pleasure cruise. Lester allowed only one other hit and retired the final 10 batters he faced, striking out seven of them.
“Now that was Jon Lester,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “It was fun to see him pitch like that again.”
The lead grew to 5-1 in the second inning, Crawford doubling in two runs off Corey Kluber (0-1). The Sox then scored eight runs on six hits and four walks in the fifth against Josh Tomlin and Frank Herrmann, sending 13 men to the plate.
Jacoby Ellsbury had a two-run double in the inning, as did Gonzalez.
“It was awesome, it was great,” Gonzalez said. “We haven’t been giving [Lester] the support he needs. Today was a good one. Hopefully we continue to do it.”
Gonzalez is hitting .393 (42 for 107) since the All-Star break with 35 RBIs in 28 games. His average is up to .309 and he leads the team with 80 RBIs.
“I’m confident. I’m just trying to stay with it,” he said. “When things are clicking and you’re making contact with the pitches you want to make contact with, you feel good about it when you’re up there. You’re not hesitating; you’re not battling yourself. You’re out there ready to swing.”
Once Lester left the game, his work sufficiently done after 101 pitches, Junichi Tazawa, Clayton Mortensen, and Alfredo Aceves (who needed the work) each went an inning. The Indians finished with only five hits and stuck out 14 times.
The 14 runs were one short of the season high for the Sox, who have a day off Monday then continue their road trip in Baltimore on Tuesday.
“The guys had a good time with it. They deserved it,” Valentine said. “They deserve more games like that.”