Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: This is Lester's team now
BOSTON -- When Jon Lester reached the majors in June of 2006, the 22-year-old southpaw joined a starting rotation that included Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, David Wells and Josh Beckett - along with the more than 1,700 games, nearly 9,300 innings, nine All-Star nominations and six world championships already between them.
Wells was gone that summer, and Schilling a year later, but as long as some piece of that veteran establishment was still on the staff, Lester was never going to be its leader. It wasn't until Wakefield retired, and Beckett was traded, that Lester really had to be the Red Sox' No. 1 in every sense. As long as they were around, they would always be the tone-setters.
But Friday night Lester announced that this is his team now.
Clay Buchholz took the mound Saturday with better numbers, and he may in fact be the better pitcher. Though in delivering a one-hit masterpiece after his team had lost six of seven, Lester gave the Sox precisely the performance they needed to punctuate their first slump of the young season, taking a page from the book co-authored by Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez and in the process continuing a reaffirmation of ace status that began the moment he arrived at Fort Myers in February.
He came to spring training recommitted and refocused after the worst season of his career. He dominated the Grapefruit League. He carried that all into the regular season, helping steer the stellar start the Sox so desperately needed. And all the while he has continued to work.
Manager John Farrell credited Friday's brilliance to the enhancements Lester and pitching coach Juan Nieves identified before last weekend's start in Texas - and while the hurler said such sessions are simply part of a pitcher's routine, his teammates have taken notice. They see his example, and when they see it rewarded with results like he got Friday, they can't help but follow his lead.
"My job was easy. I put the glove there and he hit it," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said after Lester's third career shutout. "He's just been working really hard, focusing on trying to get on top of the ball, and I don't feel like he was really trying hard tonight. His stuff showed."
He almost had a perfect game to show for it, the Blue Jays' managing just a single baserunner that came when Maicer Izturis lined a double about a foot over the glove of third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who was cheating a couple steps in for fear of a bunt with two outs in the sixth.
It was a far cry from the performance Lester had against a similar Toronto lineup last July, when he was rocked for 11 runs in four-plus innings. It was probably the low point during a lost season in which the team went 13-20 in the games he pitched - and, just as disappointing, he personally went 6-8 when following a team loss.
After Friday, however, three of his five wins this season have come after the Sox were felled, and the only game the club has lost in his five such outings came in extra innings after Lester went toe-to-toe with the Rangers' Yu Darvish.
If momentum is the next day's starting pitcher, the Sox feel as though they have a chance to start building something every day. Especially on the days they give the ball to Lester.
"It does start with the guy on the mound," Farrell said. "The way he, Clay, and John Lackey have been pitching - and Ryan (Dempster) - we feel like there are four guys, at a minimum, that can give that kind of feeling and that attitude in the clubhouse."
A clubhouse in which, with Beckett in Los Angeles and the others all doing television, Lester has now become a primary leader.
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Daniel Nava has arguably been Boston's biggest surprise to this point in the season, quickly going from an afterthought to an everyday player whose production entering Saturday (.398 on-base percentage, five homers, 23 RBI) was almost indistinguishable from that of ex-teammate Adrian Gonzalez (.394 OBP, four HRs, 26 RBI).
But history suggests that now comes the hard part for Nava. His .913 on-base plus slugging was a team-best through Friday, though he got out to a similarly torrid start in each of his first two seasons - before seeing his numbers decline significantly the rest of the way.
Combining his first 30 games of each year, Nava has hit .294 with a .403 OBP and an .887 OPS. However, he's hit just .204 with a .306 OBP and a .614 OPS after that, not including Saturday, which was his 31st game of 2013.
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With two doubles Friday night - one pulled to left, the other going with the pitch to right - Middlebrooks enjoyed his first game with multiple extra-base hits since his three-homer game at Toronto on April 7. And it didn't just look better for the third baseman who was batting .192 as recently as Tuesday. It felt better, too.
"It's been a while since I've taken almost every at-bat up there and stuck with my approach," he said. "So I'm happy with that."
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An underrated aspect in the emergence of shortstop Stephen Drew is that he's not only getting hits - he's getting big hits. Despite missing the season's first seven contests, he entered Saturday tied with Mike Napoli for the team lead in game-winning RBI (four), and second to Napoli (seven) in go-ahead RBI (five). Maybe most impressive, he also has a team-leading 10 two-out RBI, having entered the Jays series 6-for-13 (.462) with two down and men in scoring position.
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Stat of the week: The active roster the Blue Jays brought to Boston this weekend features five players (Adam Lind, J.P. Arencibia, Brett Cecil, Casey Janssen and Aaron Loup) who spent more than a rehab assignment as a New Hampshire Fisher Cat. By comparison, nine active Red Sox reached the bigs by way of Double-A Portland.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.