With all the runs staring at him from the scoreboard Sunday at Fenway Park, Jon Lester didn’t want to get too comfortable.
He was sitting on the kind of run support he’d only seen a handful of times this season.
There was the run that Dustin Pedroia pushed across in the first inning to draw first blood on the Kansas City Royals with a forceout after Brock Holt and Daniel Nava led things off with back-to-back singles.
“Getting a run early with Lester on the mound is always a good feeling,” Holt said.
There was the two-run ground-rule double that Nava shot over the short fence in right field in the third, then there was the two-run homer that David Ross smashed over the Green Monster in the fourth that added feathers to Lester’s cushion.
Nava even left a mint on the pillow for Lester with a sacrifice fly later in the fourth that gave Lester a six-run lead to with which to work.
He hadn’t given up more than two earned runs in a start since June 7, but even with the lead as cushy as it was he didn’t want to let that knock him out of the zone he’s been in for nearly two months now — and he stayed in that zone with eight shutout innings in Boston’s 6-0 win.
“That’s the hardest part about pitching is you can’t turn that switch off,” Lester said. “You’ve got to go, you’ve got to keep attacking.
“That’s where you get into trouble . . . you get a four-, five-, six-run lead, and all of a sudden it’s second and third and no outs and a three-run homer and they’re right back in it.
“So you’ve got to keep attacking, keep getting after it and making sure that the momentum stays on your side.”
Ross reminded him.
“I went out there and talked to him after we got the six-run lead and told him not to let off,” Ross said. “I think that’s the key: not to be complacent and give up sloppy runs.”
Lester sat down nine of the last 12 batters he faced before handing the ball over to Junichi Tazawa and Edward Mujica for the ninth.
“If you can step on their necks, so to speak, in an inning after [you’re up by] six, teams tend to fold if you can get that shutdown inning after you score. So we were trying to do that as much as possible,” said Ross.
Lester finished with eight strikeouts. He improved his record to 10-7, giving him his sixth 10-win season.
Over his past 31 innings, Lester’s given up just one earned run. The Red Sox are 13-7 when Lester takes the mound, coming away with wins in each of his past seven starts.
“I don’t know if it’s a zone, he’s just really, really good,” Ross said. “He’s one of the top pitchers in the game and he goes out and performs like it every time out.
“We’ve come to expect good outings from him, and that’s a lot of pressure but I think he’s handled it well.”
Lester took advantage of the Royals’ aggressive lineup, getting five of his strikeouts on swings. He threw 77 of his 115 pitches for strikes.
“I think the difference today might have been the ability to change speeds with his breaking ball,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “He threw a lot of strikes to both sides of the plate with his fastball, but again he was able to add and subtract to his breaking ball, particularly his cutter. Then his curveball his last three starts has probably been the best stretch in quite some time.”
In his last seven starts, Lester is 4-0 with a 0.85 ERA.
“I’ve always known Jon to be a very confident pitcher,” Farrell said. “As he’s advanced in his career, he’s certainly more understanding of what his strengths are as a pitcher.”
For the first time in nearly two weeks, the Red Sox didn’t have to worry about a game at Fenway coming down to a single run.
“We need every win, but it’s nice to have a little breathing room when you’ve got a guy like Jon Lester on the mound,” Ross said. “But we need them all. It doesn’t matter. We need to grind them out.
“It doesn’t matter if we win by one or six, we need to win them all, and if we can put together a consistent game like we’ve been doing that’s all we’re looking for. There’s no miracles that we can perform. It’s just going out there and play good, solid baseball.”
With a three-game sweep of the Royals, the Red Sox have won four straight and seven of their past eight, carrying the momentum they built going into the All-Star break over to the back half of the season as they try to climb out of last place in the AL East.
A 13-game stretch of division opponents is in front of them — starting with the Blue Jays in Toronto Monday night — but the sense in the clubhouse is that things have started to click.
“You can’t worry about the next 13,” Lester said. “You’ve got to worry about tomorrow. That’s what made us so good last year and you’re starting to kind of see it more and more this year.
“Obviously we’ve got a lot of guys that weren’t around for the better part of last year. So they’re starting to buy in. They’re starting to figure it out, and we’ll just keep going at it one game at a time.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.