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Despite struggles, Jon Lester picks up mates

Staked to an early lead, Jon Lester pitched seven pressure-free innings to improve to 4-4.

AP

Staked to an early lead, Jon Lester pitched seven pressure-free innings to improve to 4-4.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Ten pitches in, David Ross’s antennae shot up.

In the very first at-bat, Shin-Soo Choo had run Jon Lester’s pitch count into double digits.

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Choo forced Lester to show as many cards as possible.

“I think their game plan might have been try and get his pitch count up,” Ross said. “It was tough.”

Choo took fastballs and sinkers. He fouled off cutters.

And even though Lester ultimately froze the Rangers leadoff hitter with a cutter up and away, Ross admitted he was a little worried.

“That’s when I was like, ‘Uh-oh,’ ” Ross said. “ ‘We’re in for a grind today.’ ”

Seven days of rest had passed since Lester rung up a career-high 15 strikeouts over eight innings against Oakland.

Red Sox manager John Farrell did everything he could to make the time in between starts feel as normal as possible.

But when Lester labored through his warm-up Saturday at Globe Life Park, Ross could sense something was up.

“He said he didn’t feel like he had his legs under him today to start off,” Ross said. “I don’t know if that was a little bit of the change in climate down there.”

Over the first three innings of the Red Sox’ 8-3 win over the Rangers, Lester sat down the first nine batters he faced — striking out three of them — making it look like he was picking up where he left off.

“I’m glad it looked that way,” Lester said.

In reality, Lester was sewing outs together even though he knew he didn’t have his best stuff.

“I got away with a lot of pitches,” Lester said. “We were able to keep [them] off balance just enough to maybe get some foul balls and some bad contact.”

Knowing that Farrell had to use three relievers to pick up after Clay Buchholz lasted just 4 innings the night before, Lester was thinking about going as many innings as possible, regardless of how he felt.

“That’s always in the back of our minds when something like that happens,” Lester said. “We always talk about picking guys up. Obviously, Bucky’s not trying to [make the bullpen work], he’s trying to go deep in the game. That’s the next guy’s job to pick him up, make sure we don’t tax our bullpen too much.”

Lester (4-4) ended up tossing seven frames, giving up three runs and on four hits with eight strikeouts against a Rangers team that had given him trouble in recent years.

“I battled,” Lester said. “Any time you can come in here and get seven innings against this team, it’s always good.”

In his past five starts against the Rangers coming into Saturday night, Lester was 0-2 with a 7.62 ERA. But after hanging up eight runs Friday, the worst damage the Rangers could muster off Lester came when they cobbled together two runs in the fourth on a Prince Fielder sacrifice fly and an RBI triple by Alex Rios.

In the fifth inning, Lester gave up an RBI double to Elvis Andrus. After that, Lester said, he actually started to find a rhythm.

“Obviously in the fourth and fifth there, obviously they started squaring some balls up,” Lester said. “After that I felt like I kind of settled in a little bit and felt like I had better tempo and better direction, better plane on the ball. But with that being said, it was definitely a grind tonight.”

Lester threw 65 of his 103 pitches for strikes, going to his heater when he found himself in tight spots.

“He didn’t have his best command,” Ross said. “Cutter was so-so. Ball was a little flat. It was probably a non-typical Jon Lester start, but yet he comes away with a ‘W’ and a quality start.”

For as dominant as Lester was a week ago, Ross said, he got Saturday night on largely guile.

“At this point in his career, there’s not too much he hasn’t seen,” Ross said.

“Two World Series and been the ace on this staff or one of the top pitchers on this staff for a long time. That’s what he’s learned to do.

“If he makes that same start as a young kid, I don’t know what happens. But he’s getting to be the veteran pitcher and one of the best pitchers in the game and that’s what good pitchers do. Without their good stuff, they go out and they do a good job.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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