It was one of Jon Lester’s best starts of the season, and it could hardly have come at a better time, or in a more convincing fashion. Against the American League’s best-hitting team, he struck out a season-high nine, walked none and gave up just one run over seven innings to lead the Red Sox to a 2-1 win over the Tigers.
The results are impressive enough on their own. But Lester also threw his fastball as hard as 97 mph (according to the Fenway Park scoreboard), induced multiple swings and misses from Miguel Cabrera and threw 73 percent of his pitches for strikes. In short, he looked as dominant as he has all season, pitching one of his strongest frames in the seventh inning even after he had thrown 101 pitches through six innings.
That Lester did it against Detroit, which leads the AL in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage and runs, was all the more impressive. The situation looked dangerous entering the game, as the hitters in Detroit’s lineup Tuesday were hitting a combined .430 against him in their careers. The occasion did not seem ripe for the lefty to set a new season high in strikeouts, but that’s what he did, including three straight punchouts in the third inning.
In particular, Lester’s cutter and curveball served him well on Tuesday. He got three strikeouts on his curveball, two of them swinging. Perhaps most memorable was his third-inning three-pitch strikeout of reigning AL MVP Cabrera, in which Cabrera swung and missed at two straight curveballs to end the inning.
With men on first and second in the sixth inning, Lester also got excellent results from his cutter, retiring Matt Tuiasosopo swinging for the second out of the inning. He also got an inning-ending groundout from Cabrera in the fifth on his cutter, escaping a bases-loaded jam by retiring the slugger for the third straight time. Five of his nine strikeouts came on the cutter, four of those swinging.
For some further context on how rare Lester’s outing was, the only other time in his career he’s struck out as many as nine without walking a batter was on May 20, 2010. Max Scherzer, who started for the Tigers and ranks second in baseball in strikeouts, also threw 111 pitches over 7 innings, but just 70 strikes to Lester’s 81.
The Sox pitching staff now has a 2.31 ERA since August 19.
Here’s a look at what else went right and wrong for the Red Sox on Tuesday.
WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX
– Jonny Gomes has made a habit of defying the odds this season, and he did it again on Tuesday. Against a pitcher who has embarrassed right-handed hitters this year, he got the Sox’ first two hits of the night and scored their first run.
Right-handed hitters entered the night hitting .154/.209/.274 against Scherzer. Lefties haven’t fared all that much better, with a .223/.270/.370 line, but the lack of the left-handed Jacoby Ellsbury and the switch-hitting Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the lineup figured to be a negative.
In general, the Sox did struggle with Scherzer, who struck out eight over seven innings, though he flagged in the seventh, walking Stephen Drew and hitting David Ross in back-to-back at-bats. But Gomes went 2-for-4 against him, singling twice and scoring along with Drew in the fifth inning.
- Will Middlebrooks delivered one of his most important hits of the year in the fifth inning, a line-drive single to center that put the Sox ahead 2-1. Middlebrooks hit a first-pitch slider that hung over the plate, bringing Gomes and Drew around to score. That was the Sox’ first multi-hit inning of the game – they had put a man on base just once prior to the fifth.
Since returning to the Sox on August 10, Middlebrooks is hitting .328.
- Brandon Workman retired just one batter, but it was one he likely won’t forget soon: in the eighth inning, he entered the game to match up against Miguel Cabrera, and after falling behind him, 2-0, the right-hander challenged the best hitter in the big leagues with a 94 mph fastball that the reigning MVP popped weakly to right.
- Koji Uehara was outstanding yet again, striking out two of the three batters he faced and needing just nine pitches to retire the Tigers in order in the ninth. He picked up his 17th save of the season.
WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX
- Shane Victorino appeared to injure his hand during an at-bat in the sixth inning, a bat-shattering jam shot. He spent the next half-inning opening and closing his hand in center field (where he was starting due to the absence of Ellsbury), went to the clubhouse for treatment after that half-inning and, when he next batted in the seventh, turned around to bat left-handed for the first time in almost a month — whether in deference to discomfort in his hand or because he’d gone 0-for-3 with two punchouts in his first three plate appearances against Scherzer.
- After doubling in his return to Fenway Park as a Tiger on Monday night, Jose Iglesias drove in the only run Lester gave up on Tuesday, hitting a second-inning double to center field. Iglesias is hitting .293/.343/.370 since his Tigers debut on August 2.