Thursday, October 1, 2009

Lester polishes off sensational regular season

Whatever mechanical adjustment Jon Lester had to make in the aftermath of his abruptly shortened start last Friday at Yankee Stadium, he didn't make it until after the second inning on Thursday against the Indians.

After the second inning, though, he was untouchable.

The lefty began to cruise when he began to keep the ball down in the strike zone. He allowed five deep fly balls and a pop fly in the first two innings, in large part because he was laving his fatsball and cutter consistently up in the strike zone:

Starting with Luis Valbuena, the first batter of the third inning, Lester seemed to get it figured out. He kept the ball down in the zone much more consistently and even threw a couple of kill curveballs down in the dirt -- including the curveball with which he fanned Valbuena:

He allowed a single to right on a cutter up and over the plate to Michael Brantley in the fourth inning, but he settled back in from there, striking out Jamey Carroll on three straight pitches down and away and inducing a double play to Jhonny Peralta with a fastball down and away.

"The first six hitters of the game all elevated the ball," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said, "and it was nice to see him start getting down in the zone, pitching the way he does."

The health of his knee, of course, appears fine.

"After my side day (on Monday), all the questions that were out there about my knee, I really didn't have anymore," he said. "I treated it like a normal start, like any of the other 31 I've had all season."

But it wasn't just a normal start. Even before he'd taken a line drive off his right knee last Friday, he'd allowed more than his share of hard-hit balls at the hands of the Yankees.

Given the way he pitched in the first couple of innings, the team's presumptive Game 1 starter did seem to have something to prove. His velocity dipped noticeably from the first inning to the second, perhaps a sign that he'd come into Thursday's start with a little more adrenaline than normal.

He even acknowledged as much.

"Sometimes when you go out there early on, you try to do too much or overthrow," he said. "You're not in sync, I guess. It took me a couple of innings to find that rhythm, and once I did, I felt a lot better consistency as far as all my pitches and just being down in the zone and repeating (my delivery) throughout the game."

Lester next is scheduled to throw a bullpen session on Monday with an eye toward Game 1 of the playoffs.

(Francona again declined to announce a tentative postseason rotation, but it's safe to surmise that Lester wouldn't throw a side on Monday if he was going to start on Friday. It's also safe to surmise that the Red Sox don't want Lester to pitch on eight days' rest -- which is what he'd have to do if he pitched Game 2 rather than Game 1.)

The lefty finished the regular season with a 15-8 record and a 3.41 ERA, a particularly impressive accomplishment given that his ERA was up over 6.50 in mid-May. He finished with a career-best 225 strikeouts, a number that will rank him third in the American League behind Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. He might even get some Cy Young votes for the first time in his young career.

He also pitched his way into elite company: Only two pitchers have struck out at least 450 hitters while accumulating an ERA of less than 3.75 in fewer than 100 career starts: Lester and San Francisco wunderkind Tim Lincecum.

He cemented himself this season, without question, as one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. You could make an argument that he's the best lefthanded pitcher in the major leagues, period. (Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Johan Santana would have something to say about that, of course, but that's a discussion for another day.)

It was a tremendous regular season by any measure. But the next step remains the most important step.

"It really doesn't mean anything unless we win a World Series," he said. "The season was good. I'm happy with how I came back from the beginning of the season and got on a little bit of a roll and threw the ball better. But here, with this organization, our seasons are judged by what we do in the postseason and not by what we do in the regular season."

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