Fresh off a 12-day sabbatical, Lester had everything going before getting into some trouble in the eighth. But when the lefty departed with the bases loaded and one out, Jonathan Papelbon ended a little respite of his own by getting a 6-4-3 double play out of Raul Ibanez.
"I thought I was fine, but you've got the best closer in the game behind you, so you might as well just give the ball up and let him do it, and he did a great job," said Lester. "Two pitches and a double play. You can't beat that."
After coming out of the All-Star break with three straight losses against the Angels, the Red Sox were given a rather large lift from Lester, who fired 7 1/3 shutout innings while scattering eight hits. Lester walked none and struck out six, running his record to 8-3 and lowering his ERA to 3.20 ERA. It was the sixth start this season Lester has held the opponent scoreless.
"He was terrific," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I looked up at one point, it was the fifth or sixth inning, and he had thrown 11 balls. He was throwing quality pitches and locating. That was terrific. You hope when you give a guy rest, you don't give him too much rest. I think we all believe in the long term, this was a really good thing. But to see him come out and command and have the ball come out of his hand like that was really good to see."
But even better to see were clutch hits, which had been absent all weekend in Anaheim.
Jason Varitek delivered one very large swing, a two-run homer in the top of the fifth that snapped a scoreless tie. For the heavily-slumping Varitek, it snapped a home run drought of 83 at-bats, dating back to June 11.
"I've had good at-bats, but not necessarily always results," said Varitek. "I was able to get into a count and put a good swing on the ball."
Rookie Jed Lowrie came through with a two-run double in the top of the eighth, boosting the lead to four runs, which was huge considering the way slight leads slipped away the final two games in Anaheim.
"It was good. It's nice to play with the lead. It's nice to spread it out," Francona said. "Then if you have a problem, it doesn't end up costing you the ballgame. That was a big hit for us."
With the win, the 58-43 Red Sox stayed 1 1/2 games behind the Rays in the American League East and maintained their three-game cushion on the third-place Yankees, who come to Fenway Park for a three-game series on Friday night.
It was also a much-needed win on the road, where the Red Sox had lost 10 of 12 coming in.
"That's the big thing," said Lester. "Hopefully we can build on this game and keep going."
The Red Sox carefully plotted a prolonged rest for Lester around the All-Star break because he had pitched a staff-leading 125 innings in the first half. Aside from gobbling up innings, the other thing Lester had done over and over for the Sox is turn in a quality performance.
The mini-vacation didn't stop that momentum, as Lester continued his surge.
"It was kind of what we've been preaching all year," Lester said. "Get ahead and go from there. I had a lot of first-pitch strikes, had some good defensive plays behind me. The offense stepped up and had a couple of good at-bats and we scored some runs."
The native of Puyallup, Wash., won for the first time in three career starts at Safeco Field.
"It was nice to finally come home and pitch halfway decent," Lester said. "The last couple of times have been rough. It's nice to get a good one finally."
Papelbon, meanwhile, last pitched in the All-Star Game, giving him five days off before being thrust into a crucial situation in this one.
"The tough thing for me is to keep my delivery and my mechanics sharp. As a closer, you're trying to get used to that more and more," said Papelbon, who notched save No. 29. "That's our gig. It can either make or break you sometimes. You don't pitch for four or five days and you go into a slump or you can get it right back. That's the nature of my role. I've learned to accept that and keep moving along and chugging forward."
Then, there was the other big subplot of the game -- Varitek. He was looking for something -- anything -- to get his bat going. Entering this contest, Varitek had just nine hits in his past 79 at-bats for an average of .114 over that span. But he singled to right in the top of the third against starter and losing pitcher Washburn, and then worked the count to 3-2 in the fifth before destroying a fastball.
"It was good for our game, good for our team," said Varitek. "We put a zero up there defensively with Lester and were able to get a few runs to push us through. It's always good, any time you hit a two-run homer."
As for Lester, he is pitching like nothing less than an ace.
"Lester has stepped up, he's stepping it up for us," said Papelbon. "He's that guy right now we can kind of lean on and that's what we're doing."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.