Jon Lester came back into the limelight on Friday night at Camden Yards with perhaps his best pitching performance of 2007. In leading the Red Sox to a 4-0 victory over the Orioles, Lester allowed four hits over seven shutout innings, striking out four.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona thought it was an eye-opening performance by the 23-year-old lefty.
"I was kind of teasing him a minute ago," Francona said. "I said, 'Is that the guy I've heard about?' The ball came out of his hand. His cutter? That's the best I've seen him."
Lester didn't think his manager was overrating the performance.
"It's been close for a while," Lester said. "Today was probably the best I've felt, just mechanically, all year. [I] just felt like I had a clue on where the ball was going. I knew how to correct the mistakes and the misfires and go from there."
It was the third win in a row for Lester, who ran his record to 4-0, while lowering his ERA to 4.47.
After battling his way back from anaplastic large cell lymphoma, Lester had to overcome both mental and physical obstacles to get back to the pitcher he always was.
"I think it's well-documented what he's gone through," said Francona. "I don't need to go through all that. But I think as he gets removed from what he went through and he's able to take the mound and take his side days, his stuff is coming back. His knowledge is getting better. That was good stuff tonight. And there's always been the ability to compete and the will. We knew that. I thought his stuff was really good."
By winning for the sixth time in the past seven games, the Red Sox moved to 86-56 on the season and also maintained their 6 1/2-game lead over the Yankees, who beat the Royals, in the American League East. Boston's magic number for clinching the division for the first time since 1995 is 15.
Once Lester was through, the bullpen finished it off, with Javy Lopez working the eighth and Manny Delcarmen taking care of the ninth. Closer Jonathan Papelbon was unavailable after pitching in four of the previous five days.
"On a night we don't want to use [Hideki] Okajima, Pap is unavailable, [Eric] Gagne is not available, Javy goes 1-2-3 and Delcarmen comes in for a good inning," Francona said, "not only do we win, but our bullpen grows."
In a game where the Red Sox often appeared to be in cruise control, there was a testy moment in the fourth inning. Coco Crisp, who has been a pest in the first two games of this series, led off with a single against O's starter Daniel Cabrera. After advancing to third with two outs, Crisp noticed that Cabrera wasn't doing a very good job holding him.
So Crisp bolted with the thought of stealing home. By the time Cabrera noticed, it was too late and he had no choice but to stop in mid-delivery. Crisp then froze also. Home-plate umpire Mike DiMuro quickly called a balk, and Crisp scored to give the Red Sox a 3-0 lead.
Perhaps Cabrera was embarrassed or just incensed. His next pitch, a high blazing fastball, sailed behind Pedroia, prompting anger from the Boston bench.
Francona was irate, and so were several of the Boston players. Both benches emptied, but there was no altercation. After several minutes, Cabrera was at last ejected from the game. So was Boston backup catcher Kevin Cash, though nobody seemed sure why.
"Coco took off," said Francona. "He did a great job -- took off and stopped."
The Red Sox were perturbed that Cabrera reacted like he did.
"I think everybody in the whole stadium except him thought that was pretty stupid," Pedroia said. "Maybe he wanted to come out of the game. I don't know. I don't know what he was thinking."
There was no retaliation from Lester. He just kept throwing zeroes.
"What he did was exactly what he was supposed to do -- pitch his rear end off and win a game.," said Francona. "That's why we showed up."
In the seventh, the Red Sox bumped the lead to 4-0 on an RBI single to left by Kevin Youkilis, who set an AL record by playing his 179th errorless game in a row at first base.
Since Lester was locked in, all he needed was some run support. The Red Sox weren't overpowering with their bats, but they got the job done.
Boston got some early offense against Cabrera in the top of the second. Youkilis led off with a walk and J.D. Drew's ground-rule double set up second and third with nobody out. Jason Varitek produced the first run of the game, ripping a single to right to get Youkilis home. Crisp made it 2-0 with a sac fly to center.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.