Lester comes out firing on all cylinders
Red Sox ace yields just two homers, fans seven in dominating start
BOSTON -- Jon Lester came out firing Friday afternoon, tying a Red Sox postseason record by striking out the first four batters he faced with an uncharacteristically zippy fastball in the upper 90s and the Fenway Park crowd roaring with every pitch.
The Red Sox's ace, who allowed only a pair of solo homers, never slowed down in a dominant 7 2/3-innings outing that paved the way for Boston's 12-2 beat down of Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
Lester held Tampa Bay to three hits, two of which resulted in runs with Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zorbrist each going deep. Lester, who struck out seven, held firm after that, and his offense erupted to guarantee the victory.
"Setting aside the two mistakes to [Rodriguez] and [Ben] Zobrist, Jon was strong," manager John Farrell said. "Stayed out of the middle of the plate. That's as powerful stuff as Jon has had for us all year long, and it came at a very good time."
Lester, pitching in the playoffs for the first time in four years, said with experience has come maturity, and that was on full display on Friday afternoon as Boston fell into an early 2-0 hole.
"I knew two runs wasn't going to beat us," Lester said. "As long as I kept them close enough, our guys were going to figure out Matt [Moore], and we were able to do that."
Lester turned in the longest start of his postseason career in the 114-pitch outing, far outlasting Moore's 4 1/3 innings and ensuring the momentum stayed on Boston's side all afternoon.
"He had struggles in the recent past with command issues with his fastball, but that's not the case right now," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's throwing his fastball where he wants to, the cutter's outstanding. He just had a really good fastball. He came out there on 97.
"I was hoping that would be pretty much adrenaline [and] wear off and become more the pedestrian version, but that never happened."
Instead, Lester seemed to get better as the game progressed, and the lefty exited to a rousing ovation after getting Zobrist to fly out with four outs remaining.
"He did a great job," right fielder Shane Victorino said. "He obviously came out that first inning and had a lot of life, a lot of energy. I think he was rested, he was excited. Who knows? It's playoff baseball. Your adrenaline is going to get going and it was great to see him come out that inning and tip his cap to the crowd of doing a great job."
"In the 'pen, the velocity, the ball was coming out, I could tell," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said of Lester's extra oomph. "There's a couple things in his routine he skipped. I could tell he was a little excited, because he was going through it pretty quick. This is his game. He's such a big-game pitcher. I wouldn't want anyone else on the mound in that situation."
Lester is just the second pitcher in Red Sox history to open a playoff game with four consecutive strikeouts, joining Josh Beckett in Game 1 of the 2007 World Series. In seven career postseason starts, Lester is 3-3 with a 2.35 ERA.
"Oh, man. Can't say enough about him," said Will Middlebrooks. "He went out there and he made two pitches and they had two runs. That's tough for a guy who is doing really well, to give up two runs on two pitches. For him to stay in there and keep making his pitches and not give up on the ones he gave it up on, it shows a lot about him."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.