A new windup brought a marked improvement for Jon Lester. And he did it against the white-hot Toronto Blue Jays to boot.
But Lester, who had been lacking sharpness over the last month, also gave everyone a scare in the eighth inning Thursday night when he had to leave after slipping off the mound while delivering a pitch to Blue Jays second baseman Emilio Bonifacio.
This was not what the Red Sox wanted to see after the team was forced to shut down Clay Buchholz for a few days after an MRI revealed inflammation in the bursa sac area.
The trainer and manager John Farrell dashed to the mound after catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia summoned them, and they took Lester out.
Lester walked off limping, but said he was fine afterward. As of now, Lester said he fully intends to make his next scheduled start and he wasn’t worried about the hip. Nor were the doctors, he said, after examining him.
“I slipped a little bit,” said Lester, who improved to 8-4 with the 7-4 victory. “The doctors call it a jammed hip; kind of a zinging sensation down my leg. It’s something I’ve had before. It happens when you slip or overslide. This was a little different — in the part of the game we’re in, there’s no point in messing around with it at that juncture.
“I feel fine now,” he added. “Walking off the field, it kind of stayed with me a little bit. After the doctor looked at it, I started to feel normal. Hopefully that will carry over tomorrow and I won’t have to worry about it.”
Lester said “it was like a shooting pain down your leg. I don’t know how to describe it. It didn’t feel normal. They can score runs in a hurry and there was no point in trying to be a hero.”
“I’m not too worried about it. Come in tomorrow and figure it out, but the way I feel, I’m taking a regular turn and see how we are.”
With his new delivery, Lester starts his hands lower, near the belt; he normally starts his windup with the glove near his face. Lester explained that the new windup gave him a better balance and rhythm.
“It wasn’t something I’ve ever tried before, but we worked on it between starts and it seemed to give me a better balance,” Lester said.
Lester was charged with four runs, but he left with a 7-2 lead. He picked a fine time to get his act together with the Blue Jays beginning to creep back into the AL East race.
In the eighth, Lester allowed a pair of singles and went to a 3-0 count to Bonifacio before leaving. Junichi Tazawa threw ball four and allowed two inherited runners to score before getting out of the inning.
But when the game counted, Lester showed improvement.
The four runs allowed were Lester’s fewest in a start since June 6 against Texas. It was his longest outing since May 25 against Cleveland. Lester didn’t allow a hit over his first four innings, aided by two double-play grounders by Edwin Encarnacion.
He allowed two runs in the fifth. Melky Cabrera singled to center with one out, Toronto’s first hit of the game. With two outs, Rajai Davis singled and Maicer Izturis doubled to center to drive in a pair, the hardest-hit ball off Lester all night.
The other key for Lester was getting out of the first. He walked leadoff hitter Jose Reyes, but got Jose Bautista to fly out on a 3-0 fastball, and then Encarnacion made Lester’s dreams come true with a 6-4-3 double-play. The Sox then piled on seven runs in the bottom of the second and Lester had his comfort level.
“Any time, with the top of the lineup they have now with Bautista hitting second, it makes it much harder obviously,” Lester said. “The walk to Reyes doesn’t help. I was able to bear down against Bautista, who missed a really good pitch in. He just missed that ball. Getting the double play was big to get into the next inning.”
The fact that he hadn’t pitched like an ace the last few weeks, that he hadn’t been able to save his bullpen, had been gnawing at him. Over his previous seven starts Lester had a 7.30 ERA. His mechanics were obviously off-kilter. He went back to the drawing board and worked on a new delivery that gave him a clearer path to the plate. It worked Thursday.
Lester said he felt good about being able to save the bullpen but “part of me as a competitor wants to stay in there, but it was the right thing to do [to come out].”
Lester credited his fastball command and a good changeup with getting him through the night. He thought he was able to hit all quadrants of the strike zone with a good mix. He was able to neutralize the Jays’ big hitters — Bautista was 0 for 3 (walk and RBI), Encarnacion was 0 for 4 (two double plays and a strikeout), and J.P. Arencibia and Mark DeRosa both struck out twice.
“When you have a seven-run lead, it takes that pressure off to make the perfect pitch,” Lester said. “Just keep the ball down and keep it in the park. I was able to stay down in the zone the entire night. The only hard-hit ball scored two runs and I made a pretty good pitch.”
Lester seemed to be back on track. On Friday we should know more about the hip condition.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.