Saturday, June 6, 2009

That's more like it, Jon Lester

Poor Jason Bay.

Red Sox pitchers keep teasing him, taunting him, waving the idea of being part of a no-hitter in front of his nose -- and then not quite finishing the job.

Tim Wakefield did it in April, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Oakland's Kurt Suzuki broke it up. Josh Beckett did it on Wednesday, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning before Detroit's Curtis Granderson broke it up.

And Jon Lester did it on Saturday, baffling the Rangers into the seventh inning before Michael Young laced a fastball into left-center field for a double. The double ruined Lester's bid at becoming just the second active pitcher with two no-hitters on his resume -- and the first pitcher to throw two no-hitters this decade.

"I've never been a part of one," Bay said, "so I'm just kind of hoping that one of these days we can finish one off."

The way things look, though, Bay will get his chance sooner rather than later. Lester, looking nothing like the pitcher who had a 5.65 ERA in his first 11 starts, absolutely overpowered the Rangers from start to finish. (His final pitch of the night, a pitch Nelson Cruz hit lazily to center field, registered 96 miles an hour on the radar gun.)

In his last two starts, Lester has allowed two earned runs to go along with 23 strikeouts in 15 innings pitched. If not for Jones' ninth-inning sacrifice fly, his ERA would have slipped below 5.00 for the first time all season.

"He's a perfectionist, and he wants to be perfect -- sometimes to his detriment because he's so hard on himself," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "But once it starts clicking, you can see his body language and how he's in charge of what's going on out there."

Lester used all four of his pitches -- including the changeup that pitching coach John Farrell said is still "a work in progress" -- with the type of effectiveness many expected to see from the start of the season. He moved his pitches around in the strike zone with devastating results, and he did so from the very beginning.

Take his first-inning strikeout of Andruw Jones:
* 96-mile-an-hour fastball Jones swung at so hard he almost fell down;
* 80-mile-an-hour curveball on the outside corner;
* 98-mile-an-hour fastball well off the plate for a ball;
* 98-mile-an-hour fastball up in the zone but fouled off;
* 81-mile-an-hour curveball at the knees to induce a swing and a miss for strike three.

"Trying to be too nasty or too perfect, when you do that, you get tense and you're not your full self," Lester said. "When you're able to relax and just throw the ball, it makes that little extra life and that curveball a little sharper. ...

"I was able to get it away and in to righties, and when you're able to do that, they can't sit in one spot. When they're able to sit in one spot, it makes it very hard to get guys out."

The less he tried to be too nasty or too perfect, the more nasty and more perfect he got. He was absolutely perfect -- no hits, no walks, no errors, no nothing -- until Young got the barrel of the bat on a pretty good fastball down in the zone.

The key was staying with his stuff and not letting one fifth-inning pitch get away from him the way he has in a handful of his starts this season. He'd pitched well early in games throughout the season only to have Ichiro Suzuki or Justin Morneau ruin his night, but that didn't happen on Saturday.

"I've had good first innings before and gone out and stunk up the place," he said. "You can't tell by a bullpen. You can't tell by the first inning. You just have to get in a rhythm and let the flow of the game take hold and just try to execute pitches."

When can you tell?

"Probably about the fifth or sixth inning," he said. "You can figure out what their approach is to you and how to go the other way."

That makes for a pretty special night.

"Hs stuff from the get-go was powerful," Francona said. "He had power without trying to go get it. He was so good early, arm-side, with his fastball, and then he opens up the plate with the two-seamer, cutter, occasional changeup, curveball. He had it working right from the get-go. That was fun to watch. There was a lot of power behind those pitches."

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