BOSTON -- Red Sox starter Jon Lester had done so well to avoid the question that hung on the minds of many following another dominant outing Sunday in which he struck out 12 Tampa Bay Rays in seven shutout innings to lead his team to a 4-0 win.
And then the question came, the one that he knew in the back of his mind would eventually be asked:
What are your thoughts on Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino’s radio interview on WEEI Thursday in which he said he would like to resume contract extension discussions?
“I thought I was going to make it through,” Lester said, defeated.
Following his start on Sunday, how could the question not be asked? For the second time in six starts, Lester made a 2013 playoff team look completely punchless. He dominated the Oakland Athletics to the tune of 15 strikeouts and one hit allowed on May 3. Twelve strikeouts and four hits allowed Sunday weren’t far off.
“It’s similar, similar moving the ball in and out,” catcher David Ross said of the starts. “Really commanding his fastball, I think that’s one of the keys for him. He did a good job of establishing in and then bringing the breaking ball off that.”
Mixing in what Red Sox manager John Farrell described as one of the best curveballs Lester had all season (five swinging strikeouts on the pitch), Lester cruised through the Rays lineup. Not a single runner made it past second base against him. Between an Evan Longoria single in the first and a James Loney double in the fifth, he retired 12 straight batters. In addition, seven consecutive outs from the end of the third to the end of the fifth came via strikeout.
“I wouldn’t say [it was my] best curveball, I just think we used it a lot more today for whatever reason,” Lester said. “Felt comfortable with it, was able to dump it in there for strikes and bounce it when we needed to.”
Lester added, “I’m trying to get weak contact, trying to throw my pitch and execute our game plan. You have days where your game plan goes right and the balls that you want them to swing-and-miss at, they’re doing it.”
Much like he did following Lester’s gem against Oakland, Farrell wasted no time praising the compatibility of his ace and Ross behind the plate.
“They’re on the same page,” Farrell said. “There is such good rapport between them. They can almost anticipate a next pitch. There’s a lot of confidence when Jon throws to him.”
In 20 games with Ross behind the plate, Lester owns a 3.27 ERA. Although Ross said he tries to build a relationship with every pitcher he catches, the one he has with Lester has been made stronger by their understanding of each other that has grown over time.
“There’s a lot of history there so there’s familiarity that has come into play over time,” Ross said. “When you’ve caught a guy and you’ve gone through some bumps and bruises and you’ve learned from mistakes -- I’ve learned what gets him right and what helps him out. When you’ve done it on the biggest stage, I think it helps.”
Ross added, “The game plan is to put that left-hander on the mound and let him go to work.”
After 12 starts, Lester’s 95 strikeouts have him tied with Cleveland’s Corey Kluber for first in the major leagues. His double-digit strikeout game Sunday was the 19th of his career, passing Smoky Joe Wood for third most by a Red Sox pitcher in team history.
But back to those pesky contract talks. Lester knows that the talk regarding his potential free agency at the end of the year is inevitable, he just chooses to avoid it and remain focused on the task at hand.
“The contract talks will come at the right time. Right now, we need to worry about focusing on what we need to do tomorrow to win and not let this be a distraction for anybody else in the clubhouse,” Lester said. “We need to be thinking about playing good baseball and getting back to the top of the standings in the East and continue from there.”