Jon Lester went up against Max Scherzer, who was one win away from 20, and outpitched him Tuesday night.
This was big time.
Lester, 13-8 with a 3.88 ERA, was Boston’s Opening Day starter, therefore the ace, but from May 20-June 16 he pitched like Jon Ordinary. Now he’s the dude again, holding the potent Tigers lineup, which included Miguel Cabrera for the first time in four games, to one run on eight hits in seven innings, striking out nine with no walks in Boston’s 2-1 win.
Lester struck out the side in the third, retired the side in order in the fourth, and if third baseman Will Middlebrooks hadn’t committed an error in the fifth, he probably would have had another 1-2-3 inning. Lester ended up loading the bases in the inning, but he got Cabrera to ground into a forceout after Cabrera had been ahead in the count, 2 and 0.
Again, big time.
“I don’t want to be in that situation with him up,” Lester said of Cabrera. “The biggest thing right there is not giving up four [grand slam]. He’s the best hitter on the planet and you’re just trying to minimize damage. Fell behind, 2 and 0, threw him a good fastball and got to 2-1. And then I was able to get a cutter up on his hands for a ground ball.”
Lester allowed a leadoff double to Austin Jackson in the first, but didn’t allow the Tigers to score, getting Torii Hunter on a foul pop to first, inducing Cabrera to fly to short right, and striking out Prince Fielder. The second inning was probably Lester’s shakiest. He gave up a two-out RBI double to Jose Iglesias after Omar Infante and Brayan Pena singled, but luckily the Red Sox gunned down a second run at the plate.
It was still 1-0 in the fifth when Middlebrooks contributed a two-out, two-run single, and that 2-1 score held up.
These were the teams with the American League’s best starting pitching and the best offenses. For the pitchers, the offenses are bears, but the pitching won out Tuesday night. Lester showed the Tigers that if the teams should meet in the postseason, facing him will be difficult. It was good that Lester was able to send that message, because he likely either will be Boston’s No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the postseason, while the Tigers can send out Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
Lester did it without his best fastball. He did it with a cutter that’s returned to life and with an old-fashioned breaking ball that froze Tigers hitters.
“I think it’s a combination of everything,” said Lester about his cutter coming back over the last five starts. “I’m in a better spot going down from the mound, which puts me in a better position for that pitch. I think taking a break from it for a little bit helped me. Maybe not punching my head against the wall with it helped me relax with it. It’s been good the last three to five starts, so I’ll keep grinding it out.”
Manager John Farrell is now referring to Lester as a stopper, because the Red Sox are 11-2 after a loss when he pitches and he’s 9-1 with a 2.68 ERA after a Sox loss.
That’s what a stopper does. That’s what an ace does.
“Jon was outstanding,” Farrell said. “He’s been our stopper all year. He was powerful, threw strikes, his cutter has come back to what it was a couple of years ago. I think when he goes out he’s stepped up in those games when we needed to get back in a winning track, and he’s done just that.”
There was no margin for error in this game. If Scherzer was outpitched, it was by the hair on his chin. When you only allow a two-out, first-pitch base hit to score two runs, it’s not like you were tattooed. To get two runs off Scherzer is a big deal. One could see how incredibly important every pitch was.
“Given the circumstances, losing the first one to them [on Monday] and being a tight ballgame tonight and Lack [John Lackey] pitching so well, I just wanted to come out and follow him,” said Lester. “We were fortunate enough to be on the better end tonight.”
You could tell Lester was up for it. He was very emotional on the mound. He felt this was a playoff-type game and atmosphere despite the less-than-capacity crowd of 32,071 at Fenway.
“It’s something where I’ve always worn my emotions on my sleeve and that’s who I am,” Lester said. “I’m not gonna change that, good, bad, or indifferent. If I’m happy and confident and feeling good about myself, you’re gonna know. If things aren’t going so well, you’re going to know about it, too. That hasn’t changed my mind-set as far as what we’re trying to do.
“Every game, when you get to this point of the season, means something. We knew who we were facing tonight and what he’s done. He’s had a great season. I can’t worry about Max Scherzer. I have to worry about the other nine guys in the lineup. Go out there and keep us as close as I can.”
Red Sox catcher David Ross didn’t think Lester had his best fastball, but he said Lester had the breaking ball-cutter-changeup combination, which was good enough to dominate the best lineup in baseball and the best hitter, Cabrera, who went 0 for 3 against Lester.
Lester hasn’t pitched a bigger game this season. He kept in check a lineup that entered having scored 702 runs, had 1,398 hits, a .286 average, a .350 on-base percentage, and a .442 slugging percentage — all No. 1 in the American League.
And he outdueled a pitcher — Scherzer — whose only previous loss came July 13 in a 7-1 defeat to Texas.
Yes, that’s how good Lester was. That’s how big time this late-season performance was.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.