Monday, April 20, 2009

Lester Shots Down Orioles for 7 Innings as Sox win again 2-1

The video surprised the Baltimore Orioles earlier this week while they prepared for yesterday's opponent. They watched Jon Lester's start April 13 in Oakland, Calif., and saw a different pitcher than they expected. His top velocity, they said, barely reached 90 miles per hour. "I said, 'Man, he lost something on his fastball or something,' " first baseman Aubrey Huff said.

Yesterday afternoon, Lester strode to Fenway Park's sun-splashed mound and fired a 96-m.p.h. fastball past Brian Roberts with the game's first pitch. He announced that he had lost nothing.

Lester shut out the Orioles over seven innings in a 2-1 victory yesterday before 37,869, vaulting the Red Sox to .500 and into a third-place tie with Baltimore. Cameo closer Takashi Saito added unwanted intrigue by allowing one run and moving the tying run into scoring position in the ninth, but he squirmed loose and the Red Sox won their fourth straight. Saito's strikeout of pinch hitter Gregg Zaun preserved Lester's jewel, which proved the 25-year-old ace's rocky start an aberration.

"He was back to his old self," Huff said. "It kind of caught you by surprise a little. I think he might have been a little [ticked] off at the 0-2 start. I've seen him some times, I don't know how many at-bats I have off him, but today is as good as I've seen him throw against us."

Lester insisted he had been pitching well, even while the results of his first two starts and what the Orioles saw on video suggested otherwise. He recorded an out past the sixth inning in neither start, both losses, and his ERA skyrocketed to 9.00. The A's roped 10 hits and scored six runs in six innings against him.

Between that start and yesterday, Lester changed nothing. "We really didn't think anything was wrong to fix," Lester said. "There was nothing to worry about, to fret on." He knew himself well.

Lester dominated the Orioles so thoroughly they never sniffed a run. Lester struck out nine, one shy of his career best. He surrendered four hits, all singles. Aside from those four singles, two balls left the infield. Two runners reached second base, and none reached third.

"It just reiterates in the back of your mind that, 'OK, nothing is wrong, I'm still OK,' " Lester said. "It was nice today to go out and throw the ball well again and get the results I wanted to."

His success, Lester said, stemmed from making in-game adjustments. Lester struggled to command his curveball early but he worried about the feel for the pitch, not the early returns. He gained confidence with his curve, and it became a weapon.

Lester struck out Ryan Freel swinging over a 79-mile per hour curveball to lead off the third inning. Stuck in one of the only jams he confronted, two men on with one out in the fifth, Lester faced Nick Markakis, the majors' RBI leader. Lester threw a curve with two strikes. Markakis watched it hook into the strike zone for strike three.

This spring, Lester honed his changeup, a pitch he rarely used last season. He threw the pitch without hesitation yesterday. The changeup forces batters to respect his fastball, and because it darts to the left side of the plate, it perfectly complements his cutter, which bites to the right.

"The big thing is when it's called or when I want to go to it, I have the confidence to throw it," Lester said. "Whereas last year, it was, 'Where is this pitch going to go?' I had no idea what it was going to do, if it was going to cut, if I was going to bounce it, if I was going to throw it off the backstop. I didn't know. This year I have an idea of the area it's going to be in. That helps me free up and throw it a little easier."

Limping into the series with a 3-6 record, one starting pitcher suspended, and another on the disabled list, the Sox received the perfect salve in their opponent. The Sox, after thumping them three straight, are 26-6 against the Orioles at Fenway Park in their past 32 games, the best record against any team at home since September 2005.

After scoring 24 runs in three games, the Boston offense stagnated on a day designed for pitching, chilly with a significant wind blowing in from center. Japanese rookie Koji Uehara deftly mixed offspeed pitches and a "sneaky" fastball, Jason Bay said, but the Sox produced two well-timed hits. Kevin Youkilis doubled and scored on Mike Lowell's bloop single in the second inning, and Dustin Pedroia drove in Nick Green, who had doubled, with a two-out single in the fifth.

Lester needed no more. From his first pitch to his 108th, which Chad Moeller weakly skied to shallow center, Lester brushed off the two losses he never worried about. In his mind, he was back. He had never left.

"It felt like a normal day," Lester said. "Nothing out of the ordinary."

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