BOSTON -- If there is any comfort to be drawn from the rough starts Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester has endured the last two Aprils, it is this:
“Once he seems to find it,’’ Red Sox manager Terry Francona said Tuesday night, “he doesn’t lose it.’’
The age of discovery appears to have come earlier this season for Lester. Tuesday night, he struck out a season-high 11 batters in just seven innings. He held the Los Angeles Angels to a single run, that coming on a home run by Mark Trumbo in the second inning on an 0-and-2 fastball that sat on the top of the strike zone. In his last six starts, Lester has allowed just seven runs, or two more than he was tagged for on Opening Day in Texas.
It’s not even Mother’s Day and, as Pedro Martinez might say, Lester is already on his way to showing opposing hitters who their daddy is.
“I think that’s just the way it’s worked out,’’ Lester said when asked if he agreed with his manager’s dissection of his past springs. “I’ve had such terrible starts to the season that it’s kind of magnified that way. I don’t feel any different compared to years past at the beginning of the season. It’s just like I’ve always said. It’s about executing pitches.’’
Executioner? That’s about right. Tuesday night, almost half of Lester’s pitches (40 of 93) were four-seam fastballs that averaged just a tick under 93 and topped out at 94.8 miles an hour (Brooksbaseball.net). In his last inning, the seventh, he was still pounding the strike zone, as 16 of his final 19 pitches went for strikes.
“The velocity came a little bit earlier than normal,’’ Lester said of his performance so far this season. “I think that helps. The feel for a change-up helps. There are different things that help.’’
The Angels had a chance to get to Lester early, after Maicer Izturis doubled and advanced to third on a fly ball. But Lester struck out Howie Kendrick and induced Torii Hunter to pop out, and Izturis was stranded.
Trumbo connected for his fifth home run of the season with two out in the second -- the first time since 2008 Lester had been taken deep on an 0-and-2 pitch. They put two runners on with no outs in the fourth on Hunter’s infield hit off Lester’s glove and a walk, his only free pass of the night, but second baseman Dustin Pedroia made a lunging grab of Erick Aybar’s liner and doubled off the runner at first.
“As soon as that ball was going up I thought it was a base hit,’’ Lester said, “just because we were kind of expecting a bunt there. But Pedey did a good job of getting there and Gonzo did a great job of getting back to the base. That was definitely big, definitely changed the momentum of that whole inning.’’
Lester had thrown over 100 pitches in each of his previous five starts, which is why it came as a surprise to see Daniel Bard warming up in earnest during the Sox half of the seventh, when they scored again to make it 3-1. And when the teams changed sides after the inning, Bard trotted in from the pen.
Another case of a manager held hostage by the dreaded pitch count -- and a low one at that?
Nope, Francona said.
“We just got to take care of them,’’ he said, referring to all of his starting pitchers and alluding to the recently reshuffled rotation that gave extra rest to both Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. “We’re going through a stretch here where there aren’t any days off. He’s throwing pretty hard. It’s early. We just want to take care of him.’’
Lester said he had no objections to the TLC, and neither did anybody else after Bard set down the Angels on three straight tappers to second and the Sox tacked on four more runs in the bottom of the eighth.
“I’ve had a lot of pitches early on this year,’’ he said. “A lot of games, especially two starts ago in Anaheim, you know, where it was kind of a battle, a grind, I threw a lot of pitches in not a lot of innings.
“We’re trying to think of the future. We’ve got a long way to go, a long season. In that situation, bringing in a fresh arm like Bard in a [3-1] game, I like our chances.’’
On April 15, the Red Sox were in disarray, with a 2-10 record. Since that date, the team has gone 12-5, in great measure due to phenomenal starting pitching. In that stretch, Sox starters are 10-3 with a 1.86 ERA (23 earned runs in 111 1/3 innings).
Even Tim Wakefield got in the act Sunday, with a yield of just one earned run in 5 2/3 innings. Clay Buchholz gave up two runs the next night, and Lester one Tuesday. That goes a long way on days the opposition is throwing out Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver and Dan Haren.
“We all sat down in the clubhouse and said, ‘We’re better than we’re playing,’ ’’ Lester said, presumably referring to the recent stretch when the Sox lost four of five to the Orioles and Mariners. “And these past three games, we’ve done a really good job of not only taking advantage of situations when we needed to and having good quality at-bats, but also on the pitching side of it, grinding out innings. That’s what we have to do.
“One pitch at a time, both sides of the ball. I like our chances.’’