ST. LOUIS — The hardest task for Jon Lester on Monday night in St. Louis was trying to keep his rambunctious young son, Hudson, from speaking into the microphone in Lester’s postgame press conference.
The adorable little guy just wanted to join in the conversation about what a great outing his father had unfurled in Game 5 of the World Series to put the Red Sox one win away from going from worst to World Series-winners. The father-son tableau was fitting because Lester made cutting through the St. Louis Cardinals look like child’s play in a 3-1 win at Busch Stadium.
The October ace silenced the St. Louis bats, holding the Red Birds to one run and four hits in 7⅔ innings, while striking out seven. It was nearly a carbon copy of the 7⅔ shutout innings he threw to win Game 1.
It’s incredible to think that at one point during the season when he was scuffling there was debate about whether the Sox should have dealt Lester to Kansas City for Wil Myers, who went to Tampa Bay instead, last offseason. Myers is a budding star, but Lester is like the Clydesdales that run out on to the field at Busch Stadium before games — a horse built to be on display in October.
“He’s our backbone. He’s our horse,” said catcher David Ross, who drove in the go-ahead run with a ground-rule double in the seventh. “We expect a lot out of him. He’s pitching like the ace he is. I love catching him. I love catching all these guys.”
Pick your postseason Sox pitcher: Lonborg, Tiant, Clemens, Hurst, Martinez, Schilling, Beckett. Lester’s playoff performance is worthy of mention with any of them. He is now 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA in three career World Series starts. In five postseason starts this year, Lester is 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA. His six postseason wins tie Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez for the most in team history.
Who would have thought that possible when Lester had an eight-start stretch from May 20 to June 27 when he not only wasn’t an ace, he wasn’t a card you wanted to play. He went 2-4 with a 6.99 ERA, 61 hits allowed in 47⅔ innings and nine home runs allowed during the skid. Opponents hit .316 off him.
But he has been a different pitcher since the All-Star break, a pitcher who is one of the game’s best.
Either way the Sox knew they were headed back to the friendly confines of 4 Yawkey Way. The question was were they returning home with a chance to spray champagne bottles or in World Series survival-mode? Get the goggles ready, the Sox have two cracks at a championship.
Lester only made one mistake all night long. The Cardinals tied the game in the fourth when Matt Holliday launched a 1-0 pitch into the grassy knoll in center field.
It was the first run Lester had given up in a World Series game. He had a stretch of 16⅔ innings of scoreless World Series before Holliday’s one-out long ball.
But he started another streak after Holliday’s homer, retiring 12 Cardinals in a row.
Ross he knew Lester had a chance to do something special when he caught him before the game.
“His bullpen was phenomenal,” said Ross. “His cutter was probably as good as I’ve caught it this year.”
The Sox needed Lester to paint a masterpiece because Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright (seven innings, eight hits, three runs, 10 strikeouts) was nearly as impressive.
“We talked before the game, we felt this was going to be a classic pitcher’s duel,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “It was shaping up that way. Fortunately, we were able to break through in the seventh inning. Jon Lester was fantastic tonight.”
The Red Sox broke a 1-1 tie in the seventh and didn’t have to sacrifice Lester, who batted in the inning, to do it. It was the best of both worlds for Farrell, who avoided second-guessing when No. 8 batter Ross roped a ground-rule double to left to score Xander Bogaerts, who had hit a one-out single.
After Lester tapped back to the mound, the Sox got him an insurance run. Jacoby Ellsbury blooped a single to center off Wainwright, scoring Stephen Drew. Ross was thrown out at home on the play.
Farrell said taking Lester, who had carved up the Cardinals lineup like Christmas ham on just 69 pitches through six, was not an option.
“No, no. Even if the game was tied,” said Farrell. “Where his pitch count was, as effective as he was we were looking for at least one more inning.”
David Freese ended Lester’s mastery with a one-out double to right in the eighth. Lester got one more out and then was lifted for Koji Uehara, who fanned Matt Adams to end the eighth and closed it down in the ninth.
Lester’s command performance was even more impressive, considering he was battling a back injury.
Farrell revealed after the game that the lefthander has been coping with back tightness since the end of the regular season.
The strong, silent type, Lester said the time to be hurt is the offseason.
“I feel like it’s Oct. 29th, but stuff like that you just have to battle through,” he said. “We’ve got 25, 28, however many guys in that dugout that are relying on you to go out and pitch innings, and whatever it is now, you’ve got to put on the back burner, just like [Clay Buchholz] did [Sunday]. We’ve got three months to recover. The time is now. We’ve got to win now.”
Lester has already closed out one World Series. He started Game 4, when the Sox swept the Rockies in 2007.
He has put the Red Sox tantalizingly close to closing out another one.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.