Lester hits his stride down the stretch

BOSTON -- Many things have changed for Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester since he made his major league debut with Boston in 2006.

Off the mound, he has won his battle with cancer. He has become a husband and a father. But one thing has remained constant: When Lester has a baseball in his hand and he is standing on the mound in front of thousands and thousands of fans, he has been one of the most dominant left-handers in the game.

For the majority of this season, he has been vintage Lester, and his eight-inning performance Saturday helped the Red Sox to a 5-1 win over the New York Yankees at Fenway Park. Lester allowed only one run on three hits with two walks and five strikeouts to improve his record to 14-8 and lower his ERA to 3.75.

Each season, Lester sets a goal to reach 200 innings, and he surpassed that mark Saturday, working 201 1/3 innings this season. The most he logged in a season was 210 1/3 innings in 2008, when he posted a 16-6 record with a 3.21 ERA in 33 starts.

He is the ninth pitcher in Red Sox history with five seasons of 200-plus innings. He became only the third left-handed pitcher to reach that plateau, joining Mel Parnell (six seasons) and Bruce Hurst (five).

“That’s the one goal, individual goal, that I set every year for myself, and that’s make every start that I can and throw 200 innings,” Lester said. “When you’re on a good team like this, the rest of it takes care of itself. That’s all you can control is innings, and it’s something I take pride in and the thing I work toward every year.”

Red Sox manager John Farrell, who served as Lester’s pitching coach in Boston from 2007 to 2010, has a close working relationship with the staff’s ace and has been impressed with his ability to reach 200 innings in five of his six seasons as a full-time starter.

“Above and beyond that, it’s been outstanding innings pitched for the better part of his career,” Farrell said. "Every starter goes into a season thinking 200 innings is a minimum you’d like to get to. It proves you’ve put in the work, you’ve been consistent, you’ve stayed healthy. And today was probably an example of the bulk of his career that we’ve talked about. He was powerful. He had good command inside the strike zone. He pitched in effectively to both lefties and righties. Just a very solid, very good eight innings of work.”

On Saturday, Lester outdueled Yankees starter CC Sabathia. The New York lefty worked six innings and allowed five runs on nine hits with four walks and five strikeouts. He threw 110 pitches (70 strikes). Boston has won 10 consecutive games when facing a left-handed starter.

Getting back to Lester, Saturday was his 218th career start to pass Hurst and Tom Brewer for seventh on the Sox’s all-time list. He also passed Hurst for second-most games started by a Sox lefty.

Other than a nasty 0-4 skid in a span of six starts from May 20 to June 16, then another 0-2 skid in three starts from July 3 to July 13, Lester has been consistent for the majority of this season, especially since the All-Star break.

He owns a 2.52 ERA in his 12 outings since July 13, including 11 quality starts. Since Aug. 8, he has recorded a 1.86 ERA and a quality start in all eight games, which is one shy of his career-high nine-game streak set in 2009.

It’s a safe bet his confidence is soaring.

“Anytime you take somebody that’s had some success, obviously your confidence is high,” Lester said. “When you struggle, that kind of varies from start to start, but I don’t think this year it’s been a factor in anything. I believe in myself, and these guys in here believe in me. I knew going through what I went through in the middle of the year that it was just a matter of time. Just keep running out there and things will take care of itself.”

Each pitch in his repertoire has been working effectively too. He has command of his fastball and is throwing it in the mid-90s. His cutter is cutting with some bite. His changeup has been nasty, and his curveball has been keeping opposing hitters off-balance.

“When Jon is executing pitches, it gives him clarity on the mound,” Farrell said. “And what I mean by the clarity is that there’s no indecision with pitch selection. He’s got confidence to go to a given pitch when he needs to get a strike, whether that’s a four-seamer down and away to a righty or whatever the moment might be.

“But it’s more about him having confidence in his pitches. That’s what reduces the frustration with him and allows him to maybe not carry the previous pitch into the next one and that frustration is eliminated. That’s where he’s been for pretty much the whole year with the exception of that month stretch where things were a little hit or miss for him.”

Lester’s professional résumé is an impressive one. He was the winning pitcher in Game 4 when the Red Sox clinched a World Series sweep against the Colorado Rockies in 2007.

When he returned completely healthy and cancer-free in 2008, he made 33 starts and reached 210 1/3 innings. Being his first full season in the big leagues, he was wide-eyed and still learning. His accomplishments that season were a prelude to what has turned into an impressive career.

“Completely different seasons,” he said when asked to compare what he’s been able to do this season compared to ’08. “It was my first full year, and [I experienced] all the new firsts of playing a full season in the big leagues. Getting to 200 innings for the first time, making 33 starts and making a playoff run from spring training until whenever we finished. I don’t think you can really compare those years. I know my body pretty well now and when we need to scale back some workouts or when we need to get after it and what to expect when you get to 160 or 180 innings, how your body’s going to feel and how to maintain that.”

Farrell likes what he's seeing.

“When you think of the velocity that’s in the mid-90s now pretty consistently, it just makes his cutter that much more effective where hitters have to commit early to address the velocity," Farrell said. "Just the consistency, ability to repeat his delivery, put the ball on the ground and get strikeouts, that combination is a very good one.”

Lester has always been the type of pitcher who gets stronger late in the season. He has had consecutive starts of eight innings, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

“It’s not uncommon for power pitchers to really hit their stride in the second half of the season,” Farrell said. “He’s an example of that. His delivery becomes that much more efficient, and he repeats it more consistently. With that rhythm comes power, and that’s what we’ve all seen in Jon over the course of the time here.”

Lester has at least two starts remaining in the regular season, and while he's concentrating on those, he’s in the right frame of mind and the success is evident with the way he’s been pitching.

Based on his past experience when he’s pitching this well, especially at this time of the season, one can only imagine how he’ll pitch in October.

“You’re either going to get me, or I’m going to get you,” Lester said.

The Red Sox are banking on Lester.