When the Red Sox players burst from the dugout Oct. 4 to take the field for the franchise’s first postseason game since 2009, bet on Jon Lester being among them.
The debate about whether Lester is still capable of pitching like an ace is over, and he won. The big lefty threw eight strong innings on Saturday afternoon in a 5-1 victory against the Yankees.
Lester retired the first nine batters he faced and then nine of the last 10. In between, the Yankees had only three hits and scored one run against him before a sellout crowd of 37,510 at Fenway Park.
Lester walked two, struck out five, and sent a clear message that he wants to be the Game 1 starter when the bunting comes out of storage at Fenway Park.
“He was powerful,” manager John Farrell said. “He had good command inside the strike zone. He pitched in effectively to both lefties and righties. A very good eight innings of work.”
Against a still-dangerous Yankees team desperate for a win, Lester allowed only two runners to get past first base and threw 79 of 115 pitches for strikes. He improved to 14-8 and dropped his earned run average to 3.75.
“The guy is a horse,” catcher David Ross said. “Our horse.”
For Lester, this is a time of redemption. He was one of the faces of the team’s collapse in 2011 then endured the worst season of his career in 2012, going 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA amid the chaos.
Lester started well this season but was 8-6 with a 4.58 ERA at the All-Star break. There were questions, legitimate ones, about where Lester would slot into a postseason rotation.
The Sox waited five games after the break before sending Lester back out, banking on the idea that some extra rest would revitalize him.
“At the time, it was needed,” Farrell said. “But what he’s done since the All-Star break is consistent with how he started this season. That’s been a well-above-average pitcher, a front-line starter. That’s who Jon Lester is.”
In the 11 starts since his sabbatical, Lester is 6-2 with a 2.38 ERA. As his ERA dropped, his confidence rose. In his last two starts, both against the Yankees, Lester went 16 innings and gave up four runs. He has not given up a home run since Aug. 2.
“I believe in myself. These guys in here believe in me,” Lester said as he stood in the center of the clubhouse. “I knew going through what I went through in the middle of the year that it was a matter of time.”
On Saturday, Lester hit 95 miles per hour with his fastball and at times overpowered the Yankees, generating 11 swing-and-misses. Lester’s cutter, inconsistent in June and July, is lethal again.
Saturday’s eight innings gave Lester 201⅓ on the season. Lester often says that getting to 200 innings is his only statistical goal before every season. Everything else falls into place from there.
“That proves you’ve put in the work, you’ve been consistent, you’ve stayed healthy,” Farrell said. “Today was an example of the bulk of his career.”
The 91-59 Red Sox are 32 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2004 season. Their magic number to win the American League East was reduced to six.
The Sox have won nine of their last 11 games and are 16-4 since Aug. 24. With only 12 games to play, the Sox have the best record in baseball.
Yankees starter CC Sabathia (13-13) allowed five runs on nine hits and four walks over six innings. He struck out five.
The Sox used small ball to take a 1-0 lead in the second inning. Mike Napoli reached on an infield single and took second on a throwing error by third baseman Mark Reynolds.
After Jonny Gomes walked, Daniel Nava bunted the runners over. A run scored when Will Middlebrooks grounded to shortstop.
David Ortiz (double) and Gomes (single) drove in runs in the third inning for the Sox. Ross singled in the fourth inning and eventually scored on a two-out single by Shane Victorino.
Napoli, who was on base four times, walked in the fifth inning and took third on a double by Gomes. Nava’s sacrifice fly made it 5-1. The Sox have won their last 10 games when facing a lefthanded starter.
Sabathia is 3-4 with a 6.71 ERA in 10 starts at Fenway since signing with the Yankees before the 2009 season.
“I’ve always been a guy that’s said, ‘Bend, don’t break.’ I’ve been breaking a lot this year,” Sabathia said.
The Yankees have lost five of six games played against the Sox over the course of 10 days. At 79-70, New York is falling behind in the wild-card race and needs to escape Fenway with at least one win.
To do that, the Yankees will need to beat Clay Buchholz. The righthander was sharp in his first game after three months on the disabled list and may be the only starter who could unseat Lester from Game 1 duty.
But Lester may just be getting started.
“It’s important to be pitching well at the right time. I think it’s kind of spoken for itself,” he said.Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.