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Red Sox to lean on Lester in critical Game 5

Red Sox to lean on Lester in critical Game 5

Red Sox to lean on Lester in critical Game 5

ST. LOUIS -- It's funny how much can change in 24 hours this time of year. Late Saturday night, the Red Sox were coming off a tough walk-off loss and praying to get something positive out of an ailing Clay Buchholz. Late Sunday night, they had tied this best-of-seven World Series at two games apiece and had something very positive to look forward to for Monday's Game 5 from Busch Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET air time on FOX, 8:07 first pitch):

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Jon Lester, who's quietly building a case as one of the best postseason pitchers of all time.

Sound excessive?

Consider: Lester's 2.22 career ERA ranks eighth all time among those with at least 60 innings in the playoffs (Lester has compiled 69). Ahead of him are guys like Mariano Rivera, Christy Mathewson, Bob Gibson and Fernando Valenzuela; behind him are the likes of Orel Hershiser, John Smoltz, Jim Palmer and his Monday opponent, Adam Wainwright, whose 2.37 ERA in 60 2/3 innings is solid in its own right.

Lester is coming off 7 2/3 scoreless innings at Fenway Park on Wednesday, giving up five hits, walking one, striking out eight and benefiting from a stunning array of early Cardinals errors. Only 16 other starting pitchers have kept their opponent scoreless in Game 1 of the World Series, and five of them -- Gibson, Whitey Ford, Early Wynn, Babe Ruth and Mathewson -- are Hall of Famers.

"I don't know what it is," Lester said Sunday afternoon, a day removed from taking the ball again in Monday's Game 5. "I like this stage. I like knowing that I've got to go out there and give everything I've got for my teammates, because tomorrow might be our last game. You don't know. I guess that just gives you that little extra focus."

Monday night no longer can be Boston's last game, because Buchholz didn't break down, Jonny Gomes went deep, David Ortiz slugged and Felix Doubront bridged the gap in Game 4. Game 5 is now a critical swing game, with Lester getting an opportunity to give his team a 3-2 Series lead heading back to Boston.

He's been here before.

Tale of the Tape: Game 5
Jon Lester
Red Sox
Adam Wainwright
Cardinals
2013 regular season
Overall: 33 GS, 15-8, 3.75 ERA, 67 BB, 177 K Overall: 34 GS, 19-9, 2.94 ERA, 35 BB, 219 K
Key stat: Lester is 2-0 in the World Series and has tossed 13 1/3 scoreless innings with just eight hits. Key stat: In his nine starts immediately following a loss, Wainwright was 4-2 with a 3.68 ERA this season.
At Busch Stadium
2013: n/a
Career: n/a
2013: 19 GS, 11-6, 2.36 ERA, 21 BB, 129 K
Career: 136 G, 101 GS, 57-32, 2.59 ERA, 168 BB, 647 K
Against this opponent
2013: 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA
Career: 2 GS, 1-0, 1.20 ERA
2013: 1 GS, 0-1, 5.40 ERA
Career: 1 GS, 0-1, 5.40 ERA
Loves to face: Yadier Molina, 1-for-6, K
Hates to face: Carlos Beltran, 1-for-2, 2 BB, K
Loves to face: Stephen Drew, 3-for-21, 2 BB, 6 K
Hates to face: Dustin Pedroia, 2-for-3
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: The Cardinals had a tough time against lefties in the regular season, batting .238 as a team. Why he'll win: Wainwright has an 11-6 record and a 2.83 ERA in 19 starts at home this year.
Pitcher beware: Lester was 8-7 with a 4.21 ERA on the road this season compared with a 7-1 mark and 3.09 ERA at home. Pitcher beware: The Red Sox scored five runs (three earned) against him in Game 1, and he left after five innings for his shortest start of this postseason.
Bottom line: Lester was impressive with 7 2/3 shutout innings in Game 1. The 29-year-old lefty will try for an encore performance against a Cardinals team more familiar with his stuff the second time around. Bottom line: Wainwright has been on the losing end of his last two starts, but the Cardinals ace hasn't been tagged with a loss in three games in a row this year.

Lester won three of his four starts in these playoffs, including the critical Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on the road. He edged the Angels in Game 4 of the AL Division Series in '08, shutting them out through seven innings to move his team to the next round. And in '07, he won the clinching game against the Rockies to capture a title.

Is Lester simply a good pitcher no matter what point in the season it is, or does he take it to another level in the playoffs?

"There's a combination of a couple of things here," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "One, his physical strength and endurance is unique. That he can maintain his stuff this deep into a season is one thing. I think the one thing that we all recognize is that the power stuff wins in the postseason. And he's got it, he maintains it. And yet, in addition to his physical strengths, there's a level of concentration that he's capable of maintaining that gives him the ability to execute consistently over the time he's on the mound. And those two things combined is what's given the career performance he's had in the postseason."

Lester has evolved as a postseason pitcher through the years. Early on, there were "benefits to being naive to the situation," because it kept him from putting too much pressure on himself. Now -- after learning from the likes of Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett -- he simply knows that there's no reason to trick yourself.

"Things don't change," Lester said of this stage, "you just have to go out there. Obviously your emotions, your adrenaline -- you're playing for tomorrow, that changes. But when you get on that mound and you get past the first couple of pitches and you get kind of those jitters out of you and you start to settle in, that's when it's just baseball."

Lester will probably be facing a much sharper Wainwright the next time around, and the Cardinals probably won't surrender five runs on account of sloppy defense in the first two innings again.

"Glove Gate," however, may still linger.

The green substance on Lester's mitt in Game 1 of the World Series "looked like a giant booger," in the words of the Red Sox's ace, and is necessary because "he sweats like a pig," according to Farrell, and was nothing more than a legal smudge of rosin, the baseball world has determined.

But Lester is anticipating that being a focus once again.

"I've gotten a lot of crap from my friends and my wife on that one," Lester said about a controversy sparked from the Twitter account of a Cardinals Minor Leaguer. "I'm sure there's going to be focus on my glove and focus on my hands and what I'm doing, but I've got to worry about the Cardinals."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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