The lead run-preventer in Tuesday's 2-0 win over the Rays was Jon Lester, who turned in yet another strong performance, allowing no runs and just one hit (the only one Tampa Bay had all night) while striking out nine over six innings. Lester did walk a season-high five, but none of them came back to haunt him.
Much like the Red Sox, Lester also had a shaky start to the season. But those days seem extremely distant. The lefty is now 5-2 with a 3.15 ERA. Over his past six starts, he is 5-0 with a 1.64 ERA.
Over the past four games, Boston's starting rotation is 4-0 with a 0.32 ERA.
"We're just playing better baseball," said Lester. "It's what we kept saying from the beginning. We weren't playing good baseball; we were not playing smart baseball. Our starters weren't going deep in the game. Now we're getting on a little bit of a roll. Like we kept saying, we get on a roll, we start playing better baseball, this is a good team. I don't think people really believed us, but we are a good team and we're going to keep grinding it out."
The Sox are now 6 1/2 games behind the Rays in the American League East and will go for a sweep against their division rivals on Wednesday night, when John Lackey squares off against Matt Garza.
Is the strong starting pitching getting contagious?
"You can't help it," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "Hitters feed off each other. Pitchers feed off each other. You find different ways to win and it feeds off of it."
And then confidence grows, right?
"We're playing well. That's how you build it up," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
In this one, Boston wasn't able to generate much production against James Shields, who turned in a fine performance for the Rays. But the one big hit came from the red-hot bat of Ortiz, who belted a two-out two-run double to the gap in left-center in the third.
"That was our offense," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He drove in two, then put your seatbelt on and hold on. Shields was tremendous -- cutter, changeup, fastball. Our defense, [Adrian] Beltre was all over the field again. We played a good game, and we had to."
Shields had opened that third with two outs, but a J.D. Drew single and a walk by Kevin Youkilis gave Ortiz a shot, and the slugger delivered.
"I just had to go out and grind them as best I could, and David obviously has a big swing there in the third inning. It was a good win for us," said Lester.
It wasn't exactly a big cushion, but Lester didn't need much of one. He mowed through the Rays, allowing just one hit over the first five innings.
Though the box score might have indicated it was another rocking-chair night for Lester, the lefty will tell you otherwise.
"I had a hard time getting into a rhythm," said Lester. "It was one of those nights; it was just kind of a battle from the beginning. I was just not in a rhythm, not in the flow of the game, just kind of had a thick feeling. It's obviously nice to get out of there without any runs."
It might also be looked at as a sign of Lester's development as a pitcher that he can put up dominant results on a night he's not feeling particularly sharp.
"Jonny did a real good job," said Varitek. "I don't think he probably felt quite as strong and powerful. He kind of had to battle himself and had to work. It didn't come easy for him today. He proved a lot to himself that he can stay within himself and execute pitches and not feel his best."
Though the Rays weren't getting much in the way of offense, they got mad in the bottom of the fifth. When Carl Crawford took a called strike on a pitch that appeared to be well outside the strike zone, he was ejected. So, too, was manager Joe Maddon after a heated argument with home-plate umpire Bob Davidson. Fortunately for the Red Sox, the fire didn't turn into hits.
"Just a wide strike zone all night long," said Maddon. "When Gabe Kapler starts to complain, then I really have to pay attention."
The Red Sox simply worried about staving off the sound of clanging cowbells that they've had on many a night when the Rays have mounted a late-inning threat.
"I don't like to play close games against them, especially here. They always find a way to come back," said Ortiz.
But not this time. Even after Lester's exit, the Red Sox stayed stingy. In fact, relievers Manny Delcarmen, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon (save No. 11) held the Rays scoreless over the final three innings.
The recipe on Tuesday was one the Red Sox hope to duplicate countless more times this season.
"It's obviously good," said Varitek. "But that's what we were missing for a period of time. I think it's a matter of time before that consistently takes over."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less