Lester proves his reliability for Red Sox

BOSTON -- There will still be nights when the Red Sox bludgeon their opponents into submission, the way they did in the series opener against the Angels.

But the way they beat the Angels on Tuesday night is the way this team will win its way back into contention in the American League East, and back into the affections of its disgruntled fan base.

Great pitching, superb defense and an opposing fielder, bewitched by the Monster, letting a fly ball fall behind him for a game-breaking three-run double.

Kidding about that last part, of course. The Sox won't be able to depend on Angels left fielder Juan Rivera every night, although he botched another ball last summer for a walk-off hit by Alex Gonzalez that nearly took the shine right off his cleats as it landed at his feet untouched.

The Sox will, however, be able to rely heavily on Jon Lester, who followed up his superb outing last week in Toronto -- one-hit ball over seven scoreless innings -- with another terrific effort, one in which manager Terry Francona placed the outcome in the left-hander's hands rather than calling to the bullpen when Lester ran into trouble in the eighth.

It's so knee-jerk these days, of course, to see a manager emerge from the dugout calling for help. And Francona had Daniel Bard warming up in the eighth, hardly an undesirable option given the way he is throwing.

Even Lester admitted to some surprise that he was allowed to work out of harm's way.

"It's nice to have that responsibility on my shoulders," he said. "I thought in the back of my mind, after I gave up the hit to [Mike] Napoli, that that would have been the end. It was nice Tito let me go, to be able to fight out of that, and to definitely get a 'W."'

Howie Kendrick opened the eighth with a ground-ball single up the middle, and Napoli followed with a soft line single to left. Two on, no outs in a tie game. In 21st-century baseball, it's practically mandatory to make a pitching change.

Instead, Francona decided to play some country hardball, doing for Lester what other managers have done when they believe they're looking at an ace on the hill.

"That's a lot of responsibility," Francona said. "He deserves to have that confidence in him."

Yes, Francona was also playing the percentages some. He knew that Angels manager Mike Scioscia would bunt the runners over, which Brandon Wood indeed did, and he wanted to keep Lester in the game to face the left-handed hitting Bobby Abreu.

First, however, Lester had to get past switch-hitter Erick Aybar, who had a great at-bat, fouling off two two-strike pitches and laying off a fastball that just missed and a tough curveball in the dirt to draw a walk. So the bases were loaded for Abreu, and there was no second-guessing here. Francona was trusting his pitcher.

And again, it was not just a matter of blind faith. All night, Lester had pounded the low end of the strike zone. Of the 24 outs he registered, only two came on outfield fly balls. There were five strikeouts and 17 infield outs.

"We have to gamble somewhere," Francona said. "Lester is throwing so many ground balls. We played the infield a little shallower than normal double-play depth, and [Abreu] hits it right at Pedey. We needed that to happen."

Pedey being Dustin Pedroia, who barely was able to apply the tag to the elusive Aybar as he fell to the ground, before shoveling a throw to first in time for an inning-ending double play.

"I just wanted to make sure I got out of it fast," Pedroia said. "He [Aybar] hit the ground, and I don't know what happened. I tried to tag him. I tripped over him. It happened so fast, but it worked out for us."

That was the most important play the Sox would make defensively, but not the only one. Shortstop Marco Scutaro, who had been underwhelming in his first month with the Sox, made his best play of the season, going deep in the hole in the fourth, leaping high in the air, and launching a strong throw to first to nip Kendry Morales. There were Angels at second and third at the time and a run scored, but the ball could have easily gone into left field and extended the rally.

In the eighth, third baseman Adrian Beltre saved catcher Victor Martinez from a throwing error that could have cost a couple of runs with a diving stab of Martinez's off-line throw in an attempt to pick a runner off third.

But most of all, this night was about Lester.

"Absolutely," Pedroia said when asked if he enjoyed seeing Francona place the game in Lester's hands. "We've got a lot of those guys. I love that he's confident out there. Aybar put together an unbelievable at-bat, and he bounced right back and made pitches. That's what aces do. He's a bulldog out there, and he's going to be great the rest of the way."

There is a residual effect, Lester said, to being given the challenge of finding your own way out.

"Not to take anything away from our bullpen, we have a great bullpen, but I think guys have shown they're capable of doing that," Lester said. "Buck [Clay Buchholz] is starting to do it. When you're able to get out of those jams, it builds confidence. When you get in situations in bigger games that really matter, you can draw back and say, 'I've been here before, I can get out of it again.'

"It's huge, not only on the personal level, but big for the team."

Lester said he actually left a pitch up and middle in to Abreu, and felt fortunate that he hit it right to Pedroia. The result was welcome, Francona said, but what if it had turned out otherwise?

"Whether he gets that double play or not," he said, "we think he's good."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.