10/02/08 4:30 AM ET
Lester rises to the occasion
As de facto ace, left-hander delivers the goods in Game 1
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
They wanted Lester to be himself, because that, they figured, would be quite enough.
"Jon's a big part of our staff, but no one can bear the weight for someone else," said catcher Jason Varitek. "You go out there and pitch the games you can pitch."
And Lester, just as the Red Sox had predicted, pitched a beauty in the 4-1 victory over the Angels in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
With seven innings of work in which he allowed just one unearned run, Lester -- for one night, anyway -- made the Red Sox forget all about Beckett's ailing right oblique.
In fact, while much has been made of the outings that have made Beckett the subject of October lore, perhaps it's time to start looking at Lester as the type of pitcher who can rise to the occasion in big games.
Lester was the starter the night the Red Sox wrapped up their World Series sweep of the Rockies last fall, and he is now the starter who came into Angel Stadium and stripped its inhabitants of their home-field advantage in this series.
"I think it's very important anytime you can come out and get a win in somebody else's ballpark," Lester said. "I think we can go now into Game 2 a little more relaxed and comfortable."
But the Red Sox were never uncomfortable handing the ball to the 24-year-old Lester for this start. He is, after all, coming off a season in which he went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 33 starts and a month of September in which he went 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA in five starts.
Early on in this one, however, it appeared Lester might be in for a lesser fate. He gave up one-out singles to Garret Anderson and Mark Teixeira in the first, then walked Torii Hunter with two outs to load the bases.
"It was a tough inning," Lester said. "I was making good pitches, and they were just getting enough of a bat on there to get 'em through the hole or into the outfield."
Yet they didn't get them home. Lester made sure of that by getting Howie Kendrick to ground out weakly to third.
That first inning set a bend-but-don't-break tone that Lester would employ through the fifth. The only time the Angels got to him in that span was in the third, when shortstop Jed Lowrie bobbled what should have been an inning-ending fielder's choice. With two on and two out, Lester gave up an RBI single to Hunter that gave the Angels a 1-0 lead.
It was not a lead that would hold up. The Red Sox took over in the top of the sixth, when Jason Bay blasted a two-run homer off John Lackey.
At that point, it was debatable whether Lester, who had used 80 pitches over the first five innings, would be able to hold on to the 2-1 advantage. But he dispelled any doubts by striking out the side -- Kendrick, Mike Napoli and Gary Matthews Jr. -- in the bottom of the sixth.
"He came with a vengeance," manager Terry Francona said. "Once we took the lead, he really went after 'em."
Francona let Lester keep going after the Angels in the seventh, even though the left-hander had already thrown 100 pitches.
If anything, though, Lester only seemed to get stronger as this game wore on. He was still hitting 95-97 mph on the radar gun in the seventh, and he continued to keep the Angels off-balance with a devastating curveball.
"If he had showed where he started to lose feel for his fastball and his cutter was up, then we'd have to talk to him," Varitek said. "But Jon was strong. ... It's just part of Jonny growing into who Jon Lester is and pitching with his strengths."
Having Lester available to step in at the forefront of the postseason rotation in Beckett's place is an obvious strength for a Red Sox team that is now in prime position to gain a decisive edge in this short series.
Of course, the Red Sox never sold this as Lester replacing Beckett. They just wanted Lester to be Lester -- the same strong-willed kid who beat lymphoma and is now routinely beating the opposition, too.
"Jon's a very valuable pitcher," Varitek said. "He's been very big for this team and this organization. But I think there's things in life that man has had to battle that make baseball secondary. And I think that's a big part of who Jon Lester is."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.