BOSTON — Roger Clemens still stands as the only major league pitcher to go 20-1 to start a season.
And the former Red Sox great can thank current Sox left-hander Jon Lester and third baseman Will Middlebrooks for keeping it that way.
With Max Scherzer making his second attempt at 20-1, Lester pitched seven strong innings and Middlebrooks drilled a two-run single in the sixth to lead Boston to a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers in the middle game of a three-game series that could be a postseason preview.
Clemens went 20-1 (and didn’t win the Cy Young Award) to start his 2001 season. Scherzer, 19-1 and taken off the hook by his teammates last week against the Oakland Athletics, is now 19-2 (8-1 on the road) after getting outpitched by Lester (13-8).
The Red Sox won for the eighth in the last 10 games and maintained the best overall record in the American League by 1½ games over the Tigers.
Lester scattered eight hits, struck out nine and did not walk a batter in winning for the third time in his last four starts. Three relievers worked the eighth and Koji Uehara continued his marvelous run with a perfect ninth (nine pitches, two strikeouts).
Uehara, who picked his 17th save, has made 22 straight scoreless appearances, working 25 scoreless innings in a row.
Scherzer, who had been getting great run support (the Tigers scored in double figures in five of his victories, including a win over Boston), was bidding for his first career complete game but was lifted in the eighth inning.
The Tigers won the series opener, 3-0.
Lester pitched around a leadoff double in the first inning but didn’t escape in the second. The damage could have been worse had it not been for a blunder by Detroit third base coach Tom Brookens.
With one out, Omar Infante singled, and Brayan Pena also singled, moving Infante to third. Jose Iglesias, who doubled his first time up on Monday, did it again. Infante scored easily, but Brookens waved Pena, a lumbering catcher, home. He was easily cut down.
Lester struck out the side in the third, which is what Scherzer had done in the first.
Lester retired six straight in the third and fourth. But an error by Middlebrooks at third and two singles left the bases loaded with two out and Cabrera, a .418 lifetime hitter with the bases loaded, coming up. Lester fell behind 2-0 but got the slugger to ground out.
With one out in the bottom of the inning, Jonny Gomes, deprived of a hit down the left field line by a poor call by umpire Eric Cooper, singled on the next pitch. Gomes rode to third on Stephen Drew’s long ground-rule double (which would have scored a run if it had stayed in play). It didn’t matter. After Scherzer blew away David Ross, Middlebrooks ripped his two-run single.
Notes: Scherzer was clubbed for six runs (five earned) and eight hits in five innings against Oakland last week, although his teammates took him off the hook with a four-run rally in the ninth. ... CF Jacoby Ellsbury (sore hand) and C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (back) were out of the Boston lineup, and it looks like Saltalamacchia will be out a few days. ... The Tigers recalled RHPs Jeremy Bonderman and Jose Alvarez and C Bryan Holaday from Toledo. ... Detroit RHP Rick Porcello faces RHP Ryan Dempster in tonight’s series finale. It could be Dempster’s final start. RHP Clay Buchholz (shoulder, neck) will make his third and final rehab start for Pawtucket on Thursday night, and he appears to be on target to return to the rotation next Tuesday at Tampa Bay.