NEW YORK — The opportunity was there for Jon Lester to begin washing away last season’s inexplicable struggles.
It was his only losing year in his first seven major league seasons. It took him five starts to earn his first win. He finished the year 9-14, his 4.82 ERA so high it felt foreign. Not just to him, but to everyone in the Red Sox clubhouse.
“Jon, we all feel for him, we all feel what he’s been through the past year,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “We know that’s not him.”
With the ball in his hands on Opening Day for the third straight year, his goal — on scales large and small — was to set the tone.
Leaning largely on just two pitches — his fastball and cutter — over five innings, Lester struck out seven and allowed two runs on five hits, leading the Red Sox to an 8-2 win over the Yankees. He looked more like the pitcher that had become one of the game’s premier lefthanders.
“We know that he’s the guy that you saw today,” Saltalamacchia said. “It’s just nice to see him out there and just throwing it like he always has.”
The second Lester stepped on the Yankee Stadium mound Monday, he was joining a very small club of Red Sox pitchers.
The last Sox pitcher to make three straight Opening Day starts was Pedro Martinez, who did it each of his seven seasons in Boston. The last lefty to make three straight Opening Day starts was Mel Parnell nearly 60 years ago. The only other lefty to do it was Babe Ruth. No lefthander had won an Opening Day start for the Sox since Gary Peters in Yankee Stadium 43 years ago.
So getting his first Opening Day win was historic, but also a relief.
“It’s big,” Lester said. “It’s obviously nicer than the past couple years to be on top 1-0 instead of going through a whole road trip without a win again. So it’s big for us to come in here and just try to get on a role and set the tone early.”
He did so by pounding the strike zone, throwing first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 23 batters.
Struggling to throw his offspeed pitches for strikes, Lester muscled through five innings with essentially two power pitches.
“I felt good, had good fastball command, good cutter today,” Lester said. “Just really didn’t have anything else. It took me to the fifth inning to get a feel for a curveball or a changeup. Just really had to battle with just my fastball and cutter. With that being said, I’m really pleased with the outcome of it with just those two pitches.”
It didn’t catch up to him until the fourth inning, when he worked himself into a bases-loaded jam, and then gave up a two-out, two-run single to Francisco Cervelli.
“With the exception of that fourth inning where he threw 34 pitches, I thought he came out and commanded the strike zone down,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “But the fourth inning, I thought, started to catch up to him a little bit and after 96-plus pitches after five [innings], I felt like it was time to turn the game over to the bullpen.
“I thought Jon did bend, but didn’t break in that two-run inning. I think, more than anything, it was a good starting point for him.”
If anything it was the first step in turning around a trend of awful starts that have haunted the Red Sox in recent years. This is the third straight season the Red Sox will open with at least six straight road games. In 2011, they lost all six. Last season, they opened the season with three straight losses in Detroit and went 1-5 to begin the season.
With the first win out of the way, Lester said, he and the entire clubhouse can play without pressure piling up early.
“The first one’s always nice to be on this side, especially after the last couple years,” Lester said. “It’s just nice to get that first one off our back. Guys can kind of relax a little bit and go out there and play on Wednesday and we’re not chasing that elusive first win. So that’s big for us.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.