ST. LOUIS — Jon Lester walked slowly off the mound with two out in the eighth inning Monday night, his job done in Game 5 of the World Series. As he reached the top step of the dugout at Busch Stadium, the big lefthander was enveloped by grateful teammates.
Fighting a sore back and the persistent St. Louis Cardinals, Lester pitched the Red Sox to the precipice of a championship. A 3-1 victory sent the Sox back home with two chances to clinch the Series at Fenway Park for the first time since 1918.
“Comes down to one game,” Lester said. “Pretty special time.”
In a rematch of aces, Lester again got the better of Adam Wainwright, giving up one run on four hits with seven strikeouts. In 15⅓ innings against Lester, the Cardinals have scored one run.
“How many times can you throw the best game of your life?” teammate Ryan Dempster said.
Good question. In three career World Series starts, Lester has thrown 21 innings, allowed one run, and won all three games.
“The time is now,” Lester said. “We’ve got to win now and that’s all you can really do. That’s all you can really focus on.”
The Red Sox can become the first team since the 1991 Minnesota Twins to go from last place in their division to World Series champions in the span of a year. Game 6 will be Wednesday night.
“I can’t image what Fenway is going to be like for that game,” Shane Victorino said. “The fans are going to be amazing.”
Koji Uehara got the final four outs for his seventh save in this postseason. He has faced 12 batters in the Series and retired 10 of them.
“Our Mariano Rivera,” pitching coach Juan Nieves said.
David Ortiz was 3 for 4 with an RBI double. He is 11 of 15 in the Series with six runs batted in and four extra-base hits.
“I was born for this,” Ortiz said, smiling.
Lester was holding his oldest son, Hudson, when he spoke to reporters in the interview room after the game. When Ortiz took the chair next to him, Hudson reached out to hug him.
“I haven’t played with many superstars, but this guy right here is the epitome of a superstar and a good teammate,” Lester said. “I don’t think you could ever ask for more out of an individual than what he does on and off the field. The guy’s got a heart of gold. And he goes out there every single night and competes.”
The Red Sox were quick to jump on Wainwright in the first inning. Dustin Pedroia lined a curveball to the gap in left field for a double. With first base open, the Cardinals would have been wise to pitch carefully to Ortiz.
But Wainwright threw his first pitch over the inner third of the plate and Ortiz pulled it down the first base line for a double and the Red Sox had a 1-0 lead.
The run batted in was the 14th in World Series play for Ortiz, tying the team record held by Dwight Evans. It also gave him the most among active players.
The double was Ortiz’s ninth extra-base hit in World Series games, a franchise record.
The Cardinals tied the game in the fourth when Matt Holliday drove a misplaced Lester fastball out to center field. It was Holliday’s second home run of the Series and fifth RBI.
The next batter, Carlos Beltran, drove a fastball to the wall in left field that Jonny Gomes wrestled into his glove. Yadier Molina followed with a line drive that shortstop Stephen Drew made a leaping catch on.
Lester retired 12 consecutive batters after the home run, mixing in more breaking pitches to complement his cut fastball.
“I don’t know what else to say about Jon Lester that I haven’t already said. The guy, he’s our backbone,” catcher David Ross said. “He’s our horse when he’s out there. We expect a lot out of him. He’s pitching like the ace he is.”
The Sox took the lead in the seventh inning.
Rookie Xander Bogaerts singled to center with one out before Wainwright inexplicably walked Drew, who was 4 for 49 in the postseason and 1 for 14 in the Series.
“I had to do something,” Drew said. “Just something little to help move the line.”
Ross lined a curveball into left field for a ground-rule double. Bogaerts scored the go-ahead run but Drew was stopped at third when the ball hopped into the stands.
With the Sox now ahead, Lester was allowed to hit and he tapped back to the mound. Jacoby Ellsbury, who had struck out twice, singled to center.
Drew scored, but Ross was out at the plate on a strong throw by Shane Robinson. Still, the Sox had a 3-1 lead and Lester remained on the mound.
Ross missed two months this season recovering from two concussions and wondered at the time whether his career was in danger. On Monday, he had a game-winning hit in the World Series.
“Thank goodness my hitting has come around, because I stunk there for a while,” Ross said.
Lester came out after 91 pitches, his back sore and the “Boston Strong” T-shirt under his uniform damp with sweat. His manager was never more proud.
“We felt this was going to be a classic pitcher’s duel; it was shaping up that way,” John Farrell said. “Fortunately we were able to break through in the seventh inning. Jon Lester was fantastic tonight.”
Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com.