Jon Lester's four starts since the All-Star break have given the Sox reason to feel cautiously optimistic that he will be a reliable contributor the rest of the way. The left-hander can solidify that conviction Wednesday night in Toronto, where he is facing a Blue Jays team that he has beaten three times without a loss in four starts this season, posting a 2.79 ERA.
Lester is 2-1 with a 3.28 ERA since manager John Farrell used the All-Star break to give him nine days between starts. He helped to cool off the streaking Rays by holding them to two runs in 6 1/3 innings on July 23, and followed that up by shutting out the slugging Orioles in Baltimore on four hits over seven innings before being knocked around in an 11-6 loss at home to Arizona, exiting after a yield of 11 hits and 6 runs in just 4 1/3 innings but emerging with a no-decision.
Last Thursday in Kansas City, Lester was the losing pitcher in a 5-1 defeat by the Royals, though after a three-run first inning in which two of the runs were unearned, Lester held the Royals to just two singles and no walks over the next six innings.
“If we had come back to win that game," said outfielder Jonny Gomes, who was charged with an error that night after slipping while setting up to throw, “everybody would have talked about what a bulldog Jon was, keeping us in that game."
Lester has been relying on his cutter less and changeup and sinker more since the break, using his cutter less as a putaway pitch than one he can use to get a swing and miss earlier in the count. His start in Camden Yards against the Orioles was by far his most impressive during this stretch, one in which he challenged the fastball-hitting Orioles with his fastball while keeping them off-balance with his changeup and sinker.
After starting the season 6-0 with a 2.72 ERA in his first nine starts, Lester endured a stretch in which he went 2-6 with a 6.27 ERA in 11 starts. He said the All-Star break gave him a chance to come back mentally refreshed.
“Nobody can take a total mental break," he said, “not even in the offseason. It’s never 100 percent. It’s the nature of what we do. You’re always going to sit up and think about stuff.
“But it helps to have that break from pounding your head against the wall and thinking, ‘I’ve got a side today, I got to work on this, I got to get this curveball down, throw this pitch here.’ Now, it’s more like, ‘OK, I have my next start, spin some breaking balls, have a light side.
“The biggest thing is confidence, comfort, when you feel like you can execute pitches over and over and over again," he added.
Recently, Lester said he suspects that sometimes he comes across as making excuses for outings in which the results have not matched up with how well he thought he pitched.
“I think it gets taken wrong when I say I’ve thrown the ball better than the results say," he said. “I think that gets looked at as an excuse, that I’m not really taking accountability for what I’ve been doing.
“But when you’re in the moment, you feel like, I’m executing these pitches, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’ Then you have a bullpen and say, ‘OK, I don’t know about that. Maybe that ball was up a little bit or that cutter didn’t quite get there or that 0-and-2 curveball didn’t get down and in like it was supposed to."
Lester came away encouraged by his outing in Kansas City.
“I got the ball back down in the zone, and that was probably the best curveball I’ve had in a long time," he said after that game.
“Just have to build off this one. There are some really good positives in there. Just go back out there in five days and try to do the same thing -- just not lose.”
Wednesday night’s start against the Blue Jays, a team he has held to a .167 batting average and one home run in 109 plate appearances this season, would seem to offer ideal circumstances to prove he’s headed in the right direction.