ARLINGTON, Texas — With every blink-of-an-eye at-bat, Red Sox ace Jon Lester was saving pitches.
Elvis Andrus only saw four pitches from Lester in his first at-bat, which was better than Ian Kinsler, Texas’s hottest hitter, who saw four in his first two combined.
Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz got a look at all of six Lester offerings their first time through.
Jeff Baker took one before jumping on the second pitch he saw and bouncing it right back to Lester.
“The first three innings it seemed like they were trying to ambush a little bit and we were able to keep the ball down and make some good pitches and they hit a bunch of ground balls right at guys,” Lester said.
Even when Mitch Moreland pounced on a third-pitch cutter that cleared the wall so narrowly that Moreland held up at first not realizing it was a home run, Lester felt like he was in good shape.
“The pitch to Moreland, you know, so what?” he said. “Solo homer.”
Lester was feeling as good about his changeup as he had in any of his six previous starts, and the Rangers seemed to be in a hurry to ground out, which was why at that point Red Sox catcher David Ross figured the Rangers were only doing Lester a favor.
“I was thinking maybe complete game as well as he was throwing the ball,” Ross said. “He really was moving the ball in and out really well, I thought.”
But the game changed as soon as the Rangers’ plate approach did. Lester went six solid innings in a 4-3 loss to the Rangers that completed the first series sweep of the Sox this season, cruising through the early innings but laboring by the end of it.
For the third time in his past four starts, Lester threw 115 pitches. Through four innings, he was the definition of efficient, with just 55. But the second time through the order, the Rangers started working Lester for more pitches. He threw 60 in the fifth and sixth combined.
“It seems like they try to really shorten up and make you grind a little bit and throw a lot of pitches,” Lester said. “The more pitches that a hitter’s able to see off a pitcher, the more comfortable they become. I think that was probably the biggest difference between the first three innings and the last three innings. Just I was able to throw less pitches and get them out, and over the last three they made me throw a lot more and felt a little bit more comfortable.”
To get out of a first-and-second pinch in the fifth inning, he had to use 28 pitches, fanning Craig Gentry and Elvis Andrus for two of his seven strikeouts.
At that point he was still protecting a 3-1 lead, but an inning later, he would lose it.
With one out, he gave up a single to Adrian Beltre (7 of 13 in the series). Then Nelson Cruz stepped into the box.
It was an imperfect storm. No one in the Rangers lineup had hit Lester as well as Cruz (9 of 17 with four extra-base hits coming in), and on top of that Lester’s pitch count was piling up.
By the time Cruz went through seven pitches to work the count full, Lester was sitting on 99 for the afternoon.
Cruz shot the 100th to the right side of the batter’s eye in center field to even up the game.
Lester wanted to put the pitch inside. It ended up straying toward the middle.
“This team is built off of momentum,” Lester said. “They get a base knock right there by Beltre and get a little bit of momentum going and I let them back in the count and he didn’t try to do too much with it. Put a good swing on it.”
With both starters giving up three runs, Lester’s pitching prize fight with Rangers sensation Yu Darvish was essentially a draw. But watching Darvish double him up with 14 strikeouts, Lester said, was impressive.
“Obviously, you can tell he feels a lot more comfortable here and within himself,” Lester said.
Still, after giving up six runs against Toronto in his last start, Lester showed up for a marquee matchup with a point to prove.
Said Sox manager John Farrell, “He gave us everything he had.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.