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September 14. 2013 9:11PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Lester emerges a leader


Boston starter Jon Lester delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Yankees at Fenway Park on Saturday. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

BOSTON -- Jon Lester took the field Saturday with whiskers faintly tracing along his jaw line and chin, the follicles forming a beard not nearly as bushy or robust as those of some teammates, but a beard nonetheless. That practically seems a prerequisite to fit in with these 2013 Red Sox.

But as soon as he got to the mound, it became clear that the lefty doesn't merely want to be one of the boys. He wants to lead them. In October.

Retiring the first nine Yankees he faced, and subsequently surrendering just three hits and two walks over eight sterling innings, Lester pitched the Sox to a 5-1 win in a matinee performance that further strengthened the fast-convincing case that he should start Game 1 of the forthcoming American League divisional series that becomes more inevitable by the day.

"What he's done since the All-Star break has been consistent with how he started the season," manager John Farrell said, "and that's been a well-above-average pitcher. A front-line starter.

"That's who Jon Lester is."

When Clay Buchholz returned last week from a three-month stint on the disabled list, much of the focus was on whether Boston's unbeaten All-Star could get back up to speed in time to head its rotation in the playoffs. But in terms of going in with an ace, a bigger factor than Buchholz' return could be Lester's return to form.

After Saturday his earned run average is 1.86 over his last eight starts, and opponents are hitting .214 against him over that span - with every start qualifying as quality despite facing winning teams in all but two of those outings.

Going back even farther, Lester's ERA is now 2.38 since he was given a few extra days to rest coming out of the All-Star break, and with that his ERA for the season is now down to 3.75. If a month-long, seven-start slump that ran from May 20-June 21 is his removed from the equation his ERA would go all the way down to 2.69 - and while history can't be rewritten like that, whatever caused that slide can be corrected.

Clearly Lester has done that. His velocity is back near where it used to be, he's commanding all of his pitches to both sides of the plate, he's throwing everything with confidence.

In other words, he's pitching like an ace.

"I remember facing him, and when he had his changeup it was tough because he threw that cutter in on your hands, and it's tough to hit a changeup strike when he's just pounding it in all the time," said first baseman Mike Napoli, ex of the Angels and Rangers. "He's been doing great. He seems confident out there."

"(His) velocity is now in the mid-90s pretty consistently, and it just makes his cutter that much more effective where hitters have to commit early to address the velocity," added Farrell. "Just the consistency, the ability to repeat his delivery, put the ball on the ground and get strikeouts, that combination is a very good one."

Lester got 12 groundouts to go with five strikeouts Saturday, his third straight start where he has induced double-digit grounders, and threw 79 of 115 pitches for strikes in what was his second consecutive outing that lasted eight innings - but when asked if he feels as good as he has in a while, he dismissed the suggestion that success begets success from start to start.

"I try not to worry about getting on rolls, or stringing starts together, or anything like that. Just try to do the best I can every time I go out there," Lester said, and really that's the perfect attitude for the postseason, when yesterday matters little - and four or five days ago is practically irrelevant. In the playoffs, to borrow Earl Weaver's adage, momentum is just the next day's starting pitcher.

And it's looking like the more the Sox can see that Lester is that next guy to the bump, the better off they'll be.

And the longer their beards will grow.

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Spoiling a pair of Joba Chamberlain pitches with the count full, then letting ball four bounce into the dirt, Napoli staved off history in the seventh inning Saturday. He'd already singled twice in the game, and walked in his other plate appearance, so he remained at 176 strikeouts this season - still one behind Mark Bellhorn for the team record that has stood since 2004.

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By now it's abundantly clear how different the Red Sox of 2013 are than the 2011 club. But if one quote can encapsulate that difference, catcher David Ross might've delivered it Saturday.

He wasn't here two years ago to see that staff get whittled down by injury, and see the commitment of its pitching staff come into question after an epic collapse. But in talking about Lester, Buchholz, John Lackey and Jake Peavy, specifically, he is completely comfortable with the attitude and approach of that staff and the team this September.

"He's been doing it all year," Ross said of Lester, initially. "Buck is back now. Lackey's done it, the unsung hero. Now we've got Peave, he's got that competitive vibe.

"All these guys work so hard, it's fun to go out and compete with them laying it all on the line on a nightly basis. That's what this team does. That's why we are in the position we're in, is because we go out there and we lay it all on the line, we play for each other, everybody prepares, everybody loves playing hard for each other. That's why we haven't been on a long losing streak, because of the performance of the starting pitchers."

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Stat of the week: By notching its 91st win, the 2013 bunch on Saturday became just the second Red Sox team since 1951 to hit that mark in the club's first 150 games. They join the 1986 pennant winners as one of 10 Sox teams ever to do so.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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