The last playoff game at Fenway Park was in 2009, so long ago that kids born that year are walking off to preschool this week. Tuesday night offered a compelling reminder of what the Sox and their fans have been missing — and what may be to come.
Jon Lester was a fire-breathing dragon on the mound, pitching one of his best games of the season as the Sox beat the Detroit Tigers in a 2-1 thriller before a crowd of 32,071.
Lester and four relievers beat Detroit ace Max Scherzer, who was seeking his 20th win. The Sox were held to six hits, but one was a two-run single by Will Middlebrooks.
None of the players tried pretending this was just another game when it was over. The Sox (83-57) and Tigers (81-58) are the two best teams in the American League and could meet again in the postseason.
“It was not a usual Tuesday night,” said Jonny Gomes, who had two hits and scored a run playing in place of an injured Jacoby Ellsbury. “You could feel how excited the fans were and it was that way on the field, too.”
Lester allowed eight hits over seven innings but just one run as he left five runners stranded in scoring position. He struck out a season-best nine without a walk.
Lester has started 13 games after a loss this season. He has a 2.68 earned run average in those games and the Sox have won 11 times. Several teammates mentioned how emotional the big lefthander was over the course of the game.
“That’s who I am. I’m not going to change that. If I’m happy or confident or feeling good about myself, you’re going to know,” Lester said. “If things aren’t going so well you’re going to know about it, too.”
Detroit’s lineup was an aggregate 39 of 94 (.414) against Lester (including postseason), with Miguel Cabrera returning after a three-game absence because of an abdominal strain. But Lester controlled the highest-scoring team in baseball with a fastball that has built up velocity in recent weeks, a sharp cutter, and a curveball he could spot for strikes.
“Powerful, a lot of strikes,” manager John Farrell said. “Over the last probably three or four starts his cutter has come back to where it was as we’ve seen a couple of years ago.”
It was the bottom of the Detroit order that scored first. Omar Infante singled with one out in the second inning. With two outs, Brayan Pena ripped a fastball to left for a single and Infante went to third.
Jose Iglesias then lined a fastball to center. Shane Victorino, starting in center field for only the fourth time this season, took a bad angle to the ball and it rolled to the wall.
Infante scored, but Pena’s plod around the bases resulted in his being thrown out easily as Stephen Drew made an accurate relay.
Lester had retired seven straight before Pena reached on an error by Middlebrooks with one out in the fifth inning.
Lester struck out Iglesias before singles by Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter loaded the bases with two outs for Cabrera.
As he came to the plate, Cabrera was 10 for 18 in his career against Lester and had a .418 career batting average with the bases loaded. Lester fell behind 2 and 0, giving Cabrera even more of an advantage.
After a foul ball, Cabrera grounded one toward shortstop and the Red Sox got a force at second to end the threat.
“That was a pivotal moment,” Farrell said.
The escape gave fuel to the Red Sox offense. With one out in the bottom of the inning, Gomes got his second hit, a single to left.
Drew got a changeup from Scherzer and sent it soaring toward the Red Sox bullpen. It hopped the fence for a double.
Scherzer (19-2) struck out David Ross with three fastballs, the final two at 97 miles per hour. Middlebrooks was next and he jumped on a first-pitch slider and grounded it hard into center field for a two-run single.
He had been 0 for 4 against Scherzer in his career with four strikeouts. Middlebrooks was looking for a slider and when he saw it out of Scherzer’s hand, he told himself not to “get too big” with his swing.
“You have to try to go up the middle with Scherzer,” Middlebrooks said. “If you get something over the plate, you have to do something with it.”
Middlebrooks hit well after being recalled from Triple A Pawtucket Aug. 19 then fell into a rut. Before that hit, he was 5 for 29 and hadn’t driven in a run since Aug. 21.
“I know it was a big lift for all of us, including himself,” Farrell said.
Lester left two runners stranded in the sixth inning. He retired the final five batters he faced before leaving the game after 111 pitches, 81 for strikes.
Lester (13-8) has a 2.41 earned run average in nine starts since the All-Star break. Over 59⅔ innings he has walked 15 and struck out 51 and regained the form he showed in April and May.
Farrell used three pitchers to get through the eighth inning.
Rookie Brandon Workman had the difficult task of facing Cabrera in a one-run game. He fell behind 2 and 0, challenged Cabrera with a fastball, and got a fly ball to right field.
Lefty Craig Breslow got Prince Fielder to ground out into the shift before Victor Martinez singled to left. Junichi Tazawa struck out Infante with a fastball to end the inning.
Koji Uehara got the final three outs for his 17th save, striking out the final two and bouncing off the mound with a huge smile.
He has thrown 25 consecutive scoreless innings and retired the last 21 batters to face him.
The Sox have won eight of their last 10 games. The next time Lester faces Scherzer could be in October with significantly more at stake.
“Wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Middlebrooks said.Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.