In what may have been the biggest game of the year, after months of struggles and futility, Jon Lester finally came through.
To be fair to Lester (and fair to ourselves, re: expectations) this did not come completely out of nowhere. Two of Jon Lester's last three starts have been quite serviceable, if only the his July 3rd outing was really on this level. That game, however, came against San Diego. Tonight, Jon Lester kept the league's fourth-best offense in check.
The difference in Lester was apparent from the very beginning. While he would get behind all three batters he faced in the first, Lester fought back from a 2-0 count to strike out Desmond Jennings on his seventh pitch of the night, then rolled that momentum into two quicker outs, striking out Evan Longoria to finish the inning.
Lester was not perfect on the night, but the only damage he suffered came on a pair of fastballs that he seemed to lose control of, giving Wil Myers and Evan Longoria high heat to hit. Each of them took advantage with home runs into the Monster seats, but both came to at the start of an inning, leaving each worth just the one run.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox were doing enough against Roberto Hernandez. A trio of singles to start the third plated a run, though the Sox would see David Ortiz run into an out at third. The baserunning would be rather better in the third, when the Red Sox took their first lead of the night with the help of a stolen base. With Shane Victorino at third, Dustin Pedroia was hit by a pitch and eventually took off for second. With Pedroia sliding in both safe and right in the way of the throw, Victorino was able to take off for home while Yunel Escobar retrieved the ball from behind the bag.
The Red Sox would score again in the fifth on a Daniel Nava double and Pedroia sacrifice fly, and while that run would ultimately prove the difference, it was a big eighth inning that really locked things up. A double from Mike Napoli and single from Jonny Gomes put two men in scoring position for Stephen Drew, who brought Napoli in with a ground ball single. The dagger, however, would come from Jose Iglesias, who bounced a ball off of Evan Longoria's glove and into short right field. With Escobar once again left to scramble after a distant ball, Stephen Drew was able to come all the way around from first, scoring when the ball got away from catcher Jose Molina to make it 6-2--a score which easily survived a quiet ninth.
With the division lead on the line, Jon Lester and the Red Sox stepped up to get the job done. For all that his line of 6.1 IP, two earned runs is not dominant, there was no question that this was the Lester we have been missing for more than a month now. The only question is whether the All-Star Break has set him right, or if this is a one-off thing.
Whatever the case, with the win secured, the Red Sox need to take just one of the next two to manage an acceptable split against Tampa Bay. And with their two best starting pitchers on the mound, they have a good shot at doing at least that, if not more.