BOSTON -- Jon Lester once flirted with a Cy Young Award. He was mildly in the mix in 2010 and certainly addressed a few questions about his chances at winning 20 games and factoring in the voting for postseason awards late that season. Ever so humbly, he brushed aside the inquiries and then had a miserable outing in his season finale in Chicago, thereby sinking his chance at 20 wins and destroying his opportunity to take home the top pitching prize (he finished fourth in the voting).
Thus far in 2013, Lester is again mixing it up with Cy Young, only this time in another way. And each time he has come out on top.
Lester, who has already outdueled former Cy Young Award winners CC Sabathia and R.A. Dickey, outlasted 2012 American League winner David Price on Saturday in a scintillating duel at Fenway Park, which was treated to a 2-1 Red Sox win in 10 innings. Boston's ace lowered his ERA to 1.42, which is more than seven runs lower than it was after three starts in that 2010 run.
Of course, nobody needs to talk postseason awards in April, but it is clear that Lester is getting the better of those who know what it takes to win such honors. He and Price both got no-decisions Saturday, but Lester he is absolutely carrying the Sox, who are 3-0 in his starts and 3-4 in all other games.
Manager John Farrell insists he sees no difference in Lester based on the opposing pitcher, but the southpaw allowed himself to admit to a slightly altered mindset when someone like Sabathia, Dickey or Price is on the other side.
"It's in the back of my mind that I've got to keep these guys close," he said.
That's just what he did Saturday after a somewhat auspicious beginning. Lester walked the second batter of the game, allowed two hits in the second and gave up a base hit and an RBI double to begin the third. From then on he was virtually unhittable, retiring 12 straight after the Rays' only run. Of Lester's last 10 outs, seven came on the ground, two were strikeouts and one was a weak pop to second. The only man to reach in that span was Yunel Escobar, who singled to start the seventh. Lester needed just four more pitches to end that inning, getting a quick double play and an inning-ending groundout on the first pitch to Jose Molina. One hundred pitches, a handshake in the dugout and Lester was done.
"An outstanding effort," Farrell said.
After a year in which innings often went from bad to worse for Lester, he impressed his new manager by composing himself after the early run, making an alteration and then beginning to dominate.
"I thought Jon Lester made a very good adjustment about the fourth inning, and he did an excellent job today for us," Farrell said.
The explanation of that adjustment entailed a lot of pitcher speak from Farrell, who discussed Lester's ability to "use his arm side" and "get back downhill." When the man who served as Lester's pitching coach in 2010 discusses such matters, and Lester produces such results, it is easy to see how Farrell's presence -- which many thought would elevate Lester back to an elite level -- is making an impact.
In 19 innings, Lester has struck out 18 and walked just three. He has yet to give up a home run after serving up a career-high 25 last year, and has allowed opponents to score in just two of those 19 frames.
Maintaining such a pace is not likely. If he did it, Lester certainly would field a few late-season questions about his Cy Young Award candidacy. For now, he's happy just beating up on the other contenders.