In Lester, Red Sox know they have ultimate competitor
In Lester, Red Sox know they have ultimate competitor
By Jason Mastrodonato
BOSTON -- Jon Lester was watching Wednesday night as Adam Wainwright did magic tricks with his curveball in a complete-game win over the Pirates to advance the Cardinals to the National League Championship Series.
"You look at Wainwright the other night, he pitched Game 5, he didn't have the fastball velocity he had in Game 1," Lester said. "He made the adjustments, pitched with a lot of cutters, a lot of breaking balls. If your body is not doing good that day, you figure it out. You go on the fly and adjust your game from there."
Lester is all about making adjustments. And against the Tigers for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday, he might have to make plenty.
This current Tigers' team has had its way with Lester in the past. In 156 at-bats against him, the Tigers have hit .378 with a .439 OBP and 1.016 OPS. Lester has 24 strikeouts to 17 walks.
Victor Martinez is batting .429 against Lester. Torii Hunter is hitting .433. Miguel Cabrera has a .526 lifetime average in 24 plate appearances.
It shouldn't be an easy game for Lester. That's why he might be at his best.
"The more serious the game is, the better he gets," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "Sometimes when you're facing teams when you maybe don't have the record or the lineup isn't as strong, maybe you can let off a little bit. But he has the ability to turn it on whenever he wants. So if he's in trouble, he's got no problem getting out of it."
Key stat: 2.19 ERA in final 10 regular season starts
Key stat: 2.57 ERA led the American League in regular season
At Fenway Park
2013: 13 GS, 7-1, 3.09 ERA Career: 103 GS (104 G), 46-26, 3.78 ERA
2013: 0 G Career: 0 G
Against this opponent
2013: 2 GS, 2-0, 4.26 ERA Career: 7 GS, 2-2, 4.63 ERA
2013: 0 G Career: 1 G, 0-0, 14.54 ERA
Loves to face: Prince Fielder, 4-for-15 Hates to face: Miguel Cabrera, 10-for-19, 1 HR
Loves to face: Shane Victorino, 10-for-43, 1 HR Hates to face: David Ortiz, 3-for-3, 2 HR
Why he'll win: Has allowed three earned runs or fewer in eight of nine postseason appearances
Why he'll win: Career 3.10 ERA in September/October
Pitcher beware: Tigers batters have a lifetime .378 average off Lester
Pitcher beware: Has never pitched in Fenway Park
Bottom line: Get ahead early in count and establish cutter
Bottom line: Take advantage of facing hitters for the first time, keep them off-balance
In nine postseason games, Lester has a 2.54 ERA. In eight of nine appearances, he's allowed three earned runs or fewer. The only game he struggled -- Game 3 of the 2008 ALCS against the Rays -- he still managed to escape 5 2/3 tough innings having allowed four earned runs.
There's no secret to postseason pitching, Red Sox pitchers have said. There's no way to save gas during the regular season so there's plenty in the tank for October, because "our division is too good," said John Lackey. "We had to keep playing, keep pitching."
Playoff pitching is "just a matter of, now you're running on adrenaline," Lester said. "You don't really care how your body feels anymore. You're just trying to keep that ultimate prize in front of you and think about that. Don't think about how your body feels, just go out there and whatever you have that day."
Guys like Lester and Lackey have been good because of their ability to adjust on the fly. If one pitch isn't working, they'll try another.
"To get any of those guys out of the game, you basically have to kill them," said Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez, who played in Boston in 2009-10.
Lester's mentality is what impressed catcher David Ross when the two met in 2008. Lester was known as the "business guy." That's changed a bit, but never on a day he's starting.
"I think this year I've really seen him open up, and he's really just a warm human being, a good-hearted human being," Ross said. "But the day he's pitching, he's all business and he wants to find a way to win."
Expect the business guy on Saturday.
"Yeah, he's all business," said manager John Farrell. "He works hard four days leading up to a fifth-day start. He's a very concrete thinker. That's the one description I've used for him for a number of years. And that allows him to, I think, achieve a high level of concentration and maintain it for the time that he's on the mound.
"He's an intense competitor. But I can't say that when he walks in the clubhouse on game day, you have to steer clear, because either you're going to piss him off or you're going to say something he may not like. He's all business. And that's the way he carries himself on the field."
Lester can lose his composure at times. He's never been shy about wearing his emotions on his sleeve, and he often shows it on the mound. Still, he's hard to read. He may look composed and get lit up. He may look anxious and throw a gem.
So when Lester takes the mound Saturday, don't expect to get an idea of the way he'll pitch based on his appearance. Ross learned that lesson.
"I've seen him both ways," Ross said. "I've seen days he comes in and he doesn't talk to anyone, he just goes out and deals. I've seen days where he's pretty loose and still goes out and deals. I expect him to have his game face on that day. I don't know that anybody is just relaxed when you step on the mound to start. They understand the magnitude of what they're doing. We are not going to be very good if they're not good on the mound.
"I think my job as a catcher -- he's an emotional guy, sometimes his emotion does overwhelm him. I like him a little calmer in those situations. I like him to focus on the pitch at hand. If he can do that and get his focus off of something that went wrong, he's much better.
"He's a guy that needs to stay focused on the task at hand. He does a really good job of that 99.9 percent of the time."
Jason Mastrodonato is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmastrodonato. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.