CHICAGO — If Jon Lester and Chris Sale aren’t the top two lefthanders in the American League, they’re certainly in the conversation. Jake Peavy, who knows both pitchers well, was eager to see them take the mound Thursday night.
“Let’s call a spade a spade, they’re two of the best pitchers in the league, righty or lefty,” said Peavy, who played with Sale as a member of the White Sox and is now with Lester and the Red Sox. “You had a feeling it would be something special.”
For five innings, it had the makings of something historic as neither pitcher allowed a hit.
“Heavyweight bout tonight,” Lester said. “It was who was going to make a mistake first.”
The dueling no-hitters were lost in the sixth inning but Lester hung in the longest and with the help of catcher David Ross beat the White Sox, 3-1.
Lester pitched eight strong innings before Ross doubled in the go-ahead run in the ninth. Koji Uehara handled the ninth inning and the Red Sox finally had the kind of victory reminiscent of the spirit and skill they showed last season.
“If you don’t like that pitching, you don’t like baseball,” Lester said. “That was a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Lester (2-2) allowed one run on seven hits and struck out nine without a walk, dropping his earned run average to 2.17 and WHIP to 1.03. In his contract year, Lester is making a compelling case for the Red Sox to be proactive and keep him off the free agent market.
“A classic pitcher’s duel here. He was very good,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “Three pitches for strikes, he was down in the strike zone, he established an outstanding rhythm from the start . . . We needed everything Jon gave us tonight.”
Sale was Lester’s equal, allowing one run over seven innings with three walks and 10 strikeouts. The only run Sale allowed was a long home run by rookie Xander Bogaerts in the sixth that nearly cleared the bleachers in left field.
Sale threw a career-high 127 pitches, 77 for strikes. He and Lester were a pleasure to watch a night after the Red Sox drew 15 walks in an ugly 14-inning game.
Lester, given a one-run lead by Bogaerts, got the first out in the bottom of the sixth to extend his perfect game before Tyler Flowers grounded a single into left field. Bogaerts dived for the ball but was able only to deflect it.
Second baseman Leury Garcia, who on Wednesday pitched the final inning of the game and gave up two runs, followed with a double to right field.
Daniel Nava could not catch up to the ball and saw it hop into the Red Sox bullpen. Flowers stopped at third base but scored on an infield single by Adam Eaton.
Lester worked out of the inning but it was 1-1.
Solid defense saved Lester in the seventh inning. Adam Dunn singled before Alejandro De Aza lined a ball down the right-field line with two outs.
Dunn, a slow runner, tried to score from first base but was thrown out at the plate. Nava dug the ball out and hit the cutoff man, Dustin Pedroia. The throw to the plate was accurate and Ross applied the tag to end the inning.
“He’s a big boy rounding third and I saw him,” Ross said. “Heck of a throw from Nava and the relay from Dustin. It’s a scary one, seeing that big tank running down there.”
The Red Sox took the lead against righthanded reliever Ronald Belisario in the ninth.
Mike Napoli reached on an infield single with one out before pinch hitter Mike Carp singled the other way to left field.
Ross was next. Farrell had lefthanded hitter A.J. Pierzynski available on the bench. But Pierzynski caught the entire game Wednesday and Farrell stuck with Ross.
“We were staying with David all the way through,” he said.
Ross acknowledged he didn’t see the first pitch from Belisario, a sinker away that was called a strike. Ross considered bunting but didn’t offer at the second pitch, also a called strike.
A sinker inside was fouled off before Belisario came back with another sinker on the outside corner.
“He threw a backdoor sinker and I threw my hands at it,” said Ross, ever self-effacing about his hitting.
The ball went down the right-field line for a double, driving in Napoli.
Ross had a go-ahead double in the seventh to help Lester win Game 5 of the World Series last season.
“He’s done that a time or two for me,” Lester said. “It’s great to see, especially your batterymate. You cheer them on, I think, sometimes more than the other guys because you want them to succeed.”
The White Sox intentionally walked Nava to load the bases and called in lefthander Scott Downs. Pinch hitter Jonathan Herrera bunted the first pitch he saw toward first base. The safety squeeze gave the Red Sox a two-run lead for Uehara, who allowed a single but wrapped up his third save in 13 pitches. It was his first game since April 9, the result of a sore shoulder.
The 7-9 Red Sox scored only 21 runs over seven games in their road trip but won the final two games. They play 15 of their next 18 games at Fenway Park starting Friday night against the Orioles.
“Maybe these two games will be what gets us going,” Bogaerts said. “Lester, man, he took that game over.”Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe