Lester increases Sox's Wild Card lead

Lester increases Sox's Wild Card lead

CHICAGO -- There was no trip to the All-Star Game in July, and he won't garner a Cy Young Award trophy come November. But if there was an award for the best pitcher in baseball from May 31 through the end of the season, Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester would be on anyone's short list.

That 18-start run of dominance -- probably the best of Lester's young career -- began in Toronto more than three months ago and extended into yet another overpowering performance on Sunday afternoon against the White Sox.

Yes, it was Lester who got the Red Sox off the mat after two consecutive losses and pitched his team to a 6-1 victory.

"He was outstanding," Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said of Lester. "Even when he fell behind, he was able to come back and throw strikes and locate 3-1, 3-2 pitches. He gave us seven strong. He's been solid for us all year. This was a big start. Especially after the way the first two games went."

Boston can salvage a split of the four-game series on Monday afternoon behind ace Josh Beckett.

It was a productive day in the standings as well. With the Rangers losing to the Orioles, the Red Sox increased their lead to three games in the Wild Card standings. The third-place Rays also lost, and they now trail Boston by seven games. Though its American League East hopes are fading with 27 games left, Boston trimmed that deficit to 7 1/2 games.

"I'm looking at [the scoreboard] in April," said Lowell. "I'm a fan of the game. I'm interested in how all teams do. At this point, you get curious to see what Texas does, or Tampa Bay and the Yankees. I think that's only human nature. If you don't look at it, I think you're probably lying. I think all three lost. We gained a game on three people, so I think that's a good sign for us."

Another good sign -- albeit a recurring one -- was the smooth work performed by Lester. Over seven shutout innings and a season-high of 122 pitches, the lefty allowed four hits and two walks while striking out eight.

Perhaps the entire day would have gone differently if not for a key defensive play by Dustin Pedroia in the bottom of the first. With runners at first and second and nobody out, Paul Konerko blooped one into short right that seemed primed to drop in. But Pedroia raced back and made a brilliant over-the-shoulder-catch. Not only that, but he swiftly fired to second and doubled off Scott Podsednik.

"I know Pedey didn't get any hits, but he probably saves the game in the first inning," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "At best, we're looking at bases loaded, nobody out, because I think everybody in the ballpark thought the ball was probably falling. Podsednik probably scores and we're looking at a full-fledged rally with nobody out. To me, that was probably the play of the game and we're five minutes into the game."

In the fourth inning, Lester reached the 200-strikeout plateau, extending what was already as a season high in K's for a Boston lefty. While there have been 24 200-strikeout seasons in Red Sox history, Lester became the 10th Boston pitcher to achieve the feat.

"Strikeouts are nice," said Lester. "They're a cool stat I guess, but it's not something I'm trying to do. It's something that I think the record is kind of more special now that it's done and over with. It's something I'll look back on after my career and realize, 'Hey, that's pretty cool.' Right now, we're about winning baseball games, and we were able to do that today."

While Lester's record is a modest 12-7, his 3.44 ERA and staff-leading 20 quality starts are a far better indication of how he is pitched. Over Lester's past 18 starts -- during which he is 9-2 with a 2.25 ERA -- he has allowed three earned runs or less all but once. And the one "down" game Lester had, he gave up four runs. Sunday's contest was the 10th time over that span Lester has allowed one earned run or less.

"I'm not sure it's a run," said Francona. "I think he's just good. He just had to get himself locked in early in the season. He works so hard. He's so strong. His delivery is so intact. He allows himself to continue to be powerful just because he stays in his delivery, works hard and takes care of himself."

Lowell, who continues to produce despite irregular playing time, put the Red Sox on the board by drilling a two-run homer in the fourth inning against White Sox starter John Danks.

"I was just trying to make sure I was really specific on trying to get a pitch to drive there, because you really don't want to beat his cutter into the ground with a runner on first," said Lowell. "He threw me a sinker in and I thought I hit it OK, but I wasn't sure. I saw [left fielder Carlos] Quentin go back, and it was a pretty good feeling when it got over the fence. I didn't really crush it, but I thought it had just enough."

Since the All-Star break, Lowell is hitting .328 with seven homers and 28 RBIs.

"I think any time you feel good at the plate, you want to keep going back out there, because you're in that rhythm and you want to sustain it as much as possible," said Lowell. "I'm trying to prepare myself as if I'm playing every day. I know it seems a little foolish, but you almost have to trick yourself at the plate, because I don't want to lose the way I'm feeling. I still feel really good at the plate, but it's something really different for me."

For Lester, it's been more of the same. And on Sunday, he did it while not feeling as if he had his best stuff.

"I wouldn't say cruise control," said Lester. "Today was a battle. I think not only with them being a good hitting lineup, but just myself, almost trying to do a little too much at times and not staying within myself and got myself in trouble and made some pitches when I had to and got some outs when I got myself into some jams."

If Lester wasn't in top form, it was news to the White Sox.

"He was very good," said Konerko. "He pitched in well and threw strikes in there. Any time a guy does that, it just opens up the other side of the plate. He's just got great stuff. He throws hard and he's got a good cutter and a curveball when he needs it. Just mixed it up and pitched really well."

The offense gave Lester another run to work with in the fifth, when Jason Bay lined an RBI single that scored Jacoby Ellsbury from second. The White Sox finally got on the board in the eighth, with Ramon Castro clubbing a solo homer against Billy Wagner.

But Victor Martinez more than offset that, unloading for a three-run homer in the top of the ninth.

"Danks was just about matching Lester," said Francona. "Mikey gets a pitch he can handle and fortunately it went out. It gives us two and the way Lester was pitching, that was good. The tack-on runs were huge."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.