Thursday, May 21, 2009

Karma catches up to Lester in win

Justin Masterson left the clubhouse wearing a bright purple shirt with large white letters reading, "Listen to your soul."

It's a good lesson for a good pitcher with good stuff who's not getting the results he wants. Masterson had to deal with that earlier this week -- of the nine hits he allowed to the Seattle Mariners, four didn't get out of the infield. The hit that knocked him out of the game in the seventh inning was a dribbler on a sinker on the inside corner that didn't even get to the infield dirt.

"You make good pitches, but you look up at the board, and you've given up like 12 hits!" he said. "Half of them haven't even left the infield!"

Jon Lester has had to deal with that all season. He's given up 10 home runs, sure, but Tampa Bay's James Shields has given up eight home runs and still only has a 3.43 ERA. Going into Thursday's start, Lester's ERA was 6.51, and it was starting to get into his head a little bit. He wasn't just frustrated. He was angry.

But he really wasn't pitching that badly.

"He's had some great stuff in most of his outings this year," said Masterson, whose locker is just down the wall from that of Lester. "As has been the case with, I feel like, a lot of starters early on, he hasn't caught any type of break. Yeah, in Seattle, he gave up a couple of home runs to Ichiro, and that's tough because it's such a close game. Aside from that, he's giving up ground balls that are just out of reach of our fielders -- which means he's making decent pitches.

"The struggle this whole time has been to keep a continued mindset of, 'I'm doing the right stuff. I have to just keep out and doing it because it's going to work.'"

That mindset paid off in spades on Thursday as Lester put the finishing touches on Boston's three-game sweep of the first-place Toronto Blue Jays. Lester lasted 6 1/3 innings, allowing eight hits and walking two while striking out four, and it wasn't until Ramon Ramirez allowed Aaron Hill to hit his first pitch for an RBI single that Lester was charged with a run.

He wasn't sensational. Given that he'd struck out at least five hitters in every one of his outings so far this season, he wasn't particularly overpowering, either. But he made a handful of big pitches at big times -- and he got the breaks he hadn't been getting through the first six weeks of the season.

"He used both sides of the plate, used his cutter, used his changeup," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He kept trying to execute the game plan. If he made a pitch and it wasn't right or it wasn't effective, he came right back and made a better pitch. He had a couple (that were) borderline and came right back with a better pitch. That was good to see."

No pitch was more important than the fourth-inning fastball he threw in on the hands of outfielder Jose Bautista in the fourth inning. He'd walked Scott Rolen after an eight-pitch at-bat in which Rolen fouled off three straight fastballs before laying off a cutter that just missed the inside corner. Two batters later, he left a two-strike curveball over the plate that Rod Barajas laced into center field for a base hit.

The Red Sox only led by a 3-0 score. If the Blue Jays were going to rally, this was going to be the moment.

Lester caught his first break with his first pitch, a fastball that appeared to miss inside; umpire Marvin Hudson called it a strike. He missed with his second pitch and appeared to catch another break with his third pitch, a cutter up in the zone that Bautista fouled off.

Lester's fourth pitch was a fastball on the inside corner underneath Bautista's hands. Bautista whacked at it and rolled a ground ball toward Dustin Pedroia.

Two weeks ago, Lester induced the same type of ground ball in the same type of jam against Tampa Bay. That ground ball, though, had rolled under the glove of Julio Lugo and into left field to score a run. Two more slow ground balls likewise snuck through the infield to score two more runs and knock the lefty from the game in just the fifth inning.

This ground ball, though -- this ground ball found a glove. Pedroia snatched it off the ground and rifled a throw to Julio Lugo; Kevin Youkilis then scooped Lugo's relay throw out of the dirt. Double play. Inning over.

"It's great -- definitely boosts your confidence," Lester said. "You execute the pitch, you get ahead of a guy, and you get the result you want. It's tough because you're out there analyzing the game, and you want everything to go your way. Sometimes it just doesn't happen, and for that to happen tonight was big."

Said Masterson, "You make a good pitch and a guy hits a ground ball like you want, and the infielders make a beautiful play. It's always a motivating thing to happen. His pitch count was going up -- and it was actually from about then that he locked it up."

Lester needed just eight pitches to retire the side in the fifth inning and nine pitches to retire the side in the sixth. It wasn't until he walked Bautista (on a fastball just off the outside corner) and allowed a line-drive single to Marco Scutaro that Francona came to get him. He'd thrown 109 pitches.

Even better: For just the third time all season, he didn't allow a home run.

The secret?

"Not throw the ball down the middle," he said. "That's been kind of my problem. With the exception of a few, the majority have been fastballs right down the middle. You stay away from the middle of the plate, especially with a lineup like this, and mix up speeds, and we were able to do that. ... You keep them off-balance and not let them keyhole in one area, and you have a shot."

He didn't pitch all that much much better on Thursday than he had in any of his other starts. But he got the results he wanted -- and that might be what gets him going on the type of run he enjoyed when he went 6-0 with a 2.56 ERA in June and July a year ago.

"When it comes down to it, the mental game is so much harder than the physical," Masterson said. "It's like, 'Man, I feel great physically,' and he had to keep telling himself that to translate mentally: 'Man, I still feel great despite all this stuff that has happened.' He has, quote-unquote, had great stuff."

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