Jon Lester walked to the mound at Fenway Park on Tuesday night facing doubts that have been piling up for several weeks now.
The pitcher who started Opening Day for the Red Sox was the last starter to take the mound after the All-Star break. Lester was given nine days off in the hope that would help change the course of his season.
The lefthander, once the team’s ace, had become a question mark. The Tampa Bay Rays, who had moved to within a half game of the first-place Red Sox, would reveal much about Lester’s reliability going forward in the pennant race.
So count the game as a significant step forward for Lester and the Sox, who beat the Rays, 6-2, before a crowd of 34,609.
“This was a big game for us,” manager John Farrell said. “For him to come out and respond and take control of the game as he did — very encouraging.”
Lester allowed two runs over 6⅓ innings and matched his season high with eight strikeouts. Of equal significance was that Lester didn’t issue a walk.
“He looked like himself,” teammate David Ortiz said. “That’s the guy we need. He’s huge for us.”
The Rays had a six-game win streak snapped and it was only the second loss in their last 16 games. The teams have two games left in the series. The Sox will send Felix Doubront against David Price on Wednesday.
The Sox are 10-4 against the Rays this season.
The extended rest was only part of the equation for Lester. In his last two starts, Lester has changed the distribution of his pitches. In two-strike counts, he has gone away from his cutter and more to the other pitches in his repertoire.
The cutter, while an effective pitch for Lester in recent years, had become predictable in its use.
“If you talk to anybody that’s going to face me, I think that’s always in the back of their mind as far as a pitch that I’m going to try to get you out with,” Lester said.
“If you’re able to maybe show it a little earlier and show some pitches that you normally don’t throw later in the count you can get some mis-hits and swing-and-misses. It’s a game of adjustments. You always have to constantly make adjustments and we’re doing that right now.”
Lester got three strikeouts with his four-seam fastball against the Rays, two with his curveball, two with his sinker, and one with a changeup.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia liked the way Lester challenged hitters.
“He looked great. The velocity was there,” he said. “There was giddy-up at the end.”
Lester went into the All-Star break with a 6.27 earned run average over his previous 11 starts. There was improvement against Oakland on July 13 but not the kind of breakthrough he had on Tuesday.
“Tonight was probably the most powerful as he’s been all year,” Farrell said. “Another step in the right way for him.”
Both runs Lester allowed came on home runs. Rays rookie Wil Myers hit a sinker that didn’t sink off the light tower in left field in the second inning.
Lester had a 3-1 lead in the sixth when Evan Longoria homered to center field, his 21st of the season.
In the seventh inning, Jose Molina doubled with one out, bringing Farrell out of the dugout.
Lester was only at 96 pitches but Farrell wanted lefty Matt Thornton to face Sean Rodriguez. It worked as Thornton got Rodriguez to ground out and righthander Junichi Tazawa struck out Desmond Jennings.
Tazawa struck out three of the four batters he faced, setting up an easy ninth inning for Koji Uehara.
Rays starter Roberto Hernandez lasted only five innings, giving up three runs on seven hits and a walk.
Ortiz to singled to start the second inning and took off for third base when Mike Napoli drove a pitch down the line in left. Ortiz was out by several steps when the ball caromed off the garage door directly to left fielder Rodriguez.
Napoli took second on the throw and scored on a single by Mike Carp.
The Sox got creative in the third inning. Shane Victorino — batting leadoff for a resting Jacoby Ellsbury — led off with a double and took third when Daniel Nava flied to right. After Dustin Pedroia was hit by a pitch, he took off for second base.
The throw rolled away and Victorino scored on the back end of a double steal.
It was not a double steal but Victorino was able to take a long lead with the Rays in a defensive shift and reacted quickly when the ball got loose.
“I was looking for that and it happened,” he said. “You can take advantage of certain things.”
It was the first steal of home for the Red Sox since Ryan Kalish did it on Oct. 3, 2010 against the Yankees. That, too, was on the back end of a double steal.
Nava doubled to left center in the fifth inning, advanced on a wild pitch, and scored on Pedroia’s sacrifice fly to right field.
The Sox scored three runs in the eighth inning off Kyle Farnsworth to wrap the game up.
Napoli (2 for 4 and heating up) doubled with one out and took third on a single by Jonny Gomes.
Stephen Drew’s single — his first hit since coming off the disabled list on Saturday — scored Napoli. Gomes took third. After Drew stole second, Jose Iglesias then bounced a ball into the hole on the left side, the ball sneaking through onto the outfield grass. Gomes scored and Drew tore around the bases to beat the throw to the plate.
It was a rare two-run infield single and the Sox were in control.