Over his previous two starts, command had been key for Jon Lester.
The Red Sox lefthander had hitters on a string with his fastball.
He used it to set the tone for every at-bat, starting hitter after hitter with first-pitch strikes.
In those two starts, he had gone to his fastball 80 percent of the time on the first pitch to lefties and 74 percent to righties.
It was a big reason he had allowed just one earned run in his last 15⅔ innings entering Thursday night’s game.
When he took the mound against the Orioles, his fastball felt fine, he said.
“Just not a lot of command of really anything else,” he said after the 3-2 loss.
The signs were subtle in the first inning.
Even though he started off three of the four batters with strikes, and struck out Adam Jones and Chris Davis swinging to end the inning, Lester left a few pitches on the fringes of the zone.
As it happened, plate umpire Tim McClelland was friendly to him, giving him the strike call.
But Lester knew it would be one of those nights.
“Some nights you have that and just try to keep the team in the ballgame as best I could,” Lester said. “That’s really it. Just tried to keep them as close as I could with what we were working with tonight.”
For the fourth straight start, he went at least six innings, keeping the Sox within striking distance.
But it was, admittedly, a grind.
It didn’t help that seemingly every inning an Oriole found a way to turn his at-bat into a long and intense tug-of-war.
“When you’re not really commanding a whole lot of everything, you’re going to have that,” Lester said. “I threw a lot of fastballs tonight, so especially with that team so you’re going to have a lot of foul balls, you’re going to have a lot of deep counts. So just being able to command strike 1, let alone the first two, three pitches, I didn’t do a very good job of that tonight, but I found a way to minimize damage, keep it close enough to where these guys felt like they could have a chance.”
It started with J.J. Hardy’s at-bat in the second. When Lester missed with his first two pitches — a sinker low that could have gone either way, and a fastball inside that was just as close — he knew Hardy was going to dig in.
The battle lasted nine pitches. The inning only took 17.
“When you’re constantly starting 2-0 or 1-0 on these guys, they can keyhole you,” Lester said. “They can take a lot of pitches. I just wasn’t able to get ahead of a lot of the guys early on and establish that we’re throwing strikes. So they were able to just sit back and wait for their pitches.”
By the end of the night, Lester’s pitch count had run to 112, cracking the century mark for the fifth straight start. He pushed through the night largely on guile, finding ways to keep an Orioles team that thrived on the home run ball in check.
He was tested more than a few times. Manny Machado dotted the Wall with a two-run double in the third and Davis sent a shot to left-center in the fifth that plated the run that would end up being the difference-maker. Matt Wieters, who had given Lester troubles in the past, launched two loud and long fly balls to center that just barely stayed in the yard.
“I thought he had good stuff once again,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “A couple of pitches found the middle of the plate, particularly the two-run double by Machado and then the 0-2 fastball that he didn’t quite get off the edge of the plate to Davis for the other run. But again he was strong and kind of grinded through some things tonight to give us six strong innings with three runs allowed.’’
But the victory, however small, was that he kept the Orioles in the yard.
“I feel like it’s similar to the Toronto team,” Lester said. “If you’re able to keep them in the ballpark then you have a chance. We had some balls that were hit tonight that Shane [Victorino] ran down, that [Jacoby Ellsbury] ran down. Made some great plays behind me. You’re going to have that against a team like that that swings the bat really well and we were able to minimize that damage and keep them in the ballpark, which is big.”
The win allowed the Orioles to salvage the final game of the three-game series.
“Obviously, they’ve got a great pitching staff and a great bullpen, so good pitching’s always going to stymie hitters,” Lester said. “So if we’re able to, with our starters and our bullpen, keep them within reach then we’ve got a chance and we did that tonight. We had a chance tonight and we just came up a little short.”