BOSTON -- With a long day of baseball on tap, Jon Lester made it feel a little shorter for the Red Sox, pitching just the type of game they needed in Game 1 of a day-night doubleheader vs. the Rays.
The power lefty gave Boston seven strong innings, allowing just three hits and one run while walking one and striking out eight to lift his team to a 3-1 victory.
With the win, Lester improved his record to 12-6 while lowering his ERA 3.22. Meanwhile, the Red Sox moved back into sole possession of first place in the American League East, albeit by just a half-game.
The interesting thing about Lester's performance is that while it ended in virtual cruise control, it didn't begin that way. In fact, Lester had thrown 79 pitches through four innings.
"Early on, I struggled a little bit with getting in command and getting in control of my body and throwing balls downhill," said Lester. "I was able to do that in that fifth and had a quick inning. You know, notoriously, these guys are pretty aggressive hitters, and they did a pretty good job the first couple of innings of laying off some pitches. That fifth inning was nice. It was a nice breather."
In that fifth inning Lester spoke of, he threw all of six pitches. Interestingly, he started 1-0 on each batter, only to induce a contact out on the second pitch.
"Those innings are always nice," said Lester. "They don't happen every often. You don't get five, six pitches very often. Especially in a game like today, it was definitely a welcome change from my other innings."
While the Red Sox hardly erupted against solid Rays starter James Shields, Jacoby Ellsbury provided what proved to be a game-breaking swing, a three-run homer to right in the third.
"I was just looking for a pitch that I could drive," said Ellsbury. "He gave me a first-pitch curveball that I swung through, then he threw another one that was just off. He left a changeup that was down out over the plate, and I did a good job just keeping my hands back and staying through it."
It has been as season full of bit hits like that for Ellsbury, who is hitting .313 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs.
"He's not missing his pitch when he sees it," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "He's always had some power. There's no question he's had power. I think the difference is now, when he gets a pitch that he can drive, he is."
From there, in possession of a 3-1 lead, Lester and the Sox didn't give an inch.
Daniel Bard mowed through the Rays in the eighth. Jonathan Papelbon came on in the ninth to convert his 28th save in 29 opportunities. Papelbon has converted his last 23 saves successfully, the best stretch of his career.
"I feel good," Papelbon said. "I feel good about my delivery. I've been able to have more life on the ball."
Of course, Papelbon might have had to work a little harder if not for a spectacular play by second baseman Dustin Pedroia that ended the game. B.J. Upton hit a bullet that already looked like it was behind Pedroia and into center field. But on the outfield grass, Pedroia snared the ball on a line to end the game.
"He kind of wills himself to make plays," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He always does. And it's probably not fair, but when the ball is hit, you think he's going to make a play and you go look at the video later and you go, 'Wow, that's a pretty tough play.'"
The Rays were able to get to Lester in the first inning. Desmond Jennings opened the game by lining a double to left and then stealing third. With one out, Evan Longoria grounded to third, and Jennings scored to make it 1-0.
In the third, Boston stormed back. Josh Reddick got things started by lining a single to right. Mike Aviles drilled a one-out single up the middle. Up stepped Ellsbury, and he came through with his big homer.
"The biggest thing, if I'm ahead, just trying to drive the ball. Just trying to get into a good count to hit in, trying to get a good pitch," Ellsbury said. "Just keeping my weight back and staying balanced. That's been the only difference, just being in a good hitting position."
Once spoiled by Ellsbury's speed and tablesetting capabilities, the Red Sox have watched him turn into a bona fide run producer this season.
"Unbelievable," said Lester. "It's been fun to watch. You see him mature into a really good hitter, a really good player. We always knew he could run the ball down and play good defense. He always held his own hitting. This year has been fun to watch. I think he had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder coming into this Spring Training as far as what happened last year. Good for us. It's helped us out a lot."