TORONTO -- This year's roadblock wasn't nearly as recognizable as a season ago.
When Jon Lester struggled at the outset of 2008 before going on a five-month roll that lasted up through Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, it wasn't hard to figure out. The continuing road back from cancer, along with some lingering inexperience, were difficult at the time for the lefty to maneuver around.
This season, however, the enemy proved to be a bit more clandestine. As Lester pointed out after his six-inning, one-run outing against the Blue Jays, Sunday, in which he struck out a career-high 12, expectations can be a sneaky thing.
"If this is last year at this time and I'm having the same results I would still be aggravated by it. But given what went on last year, and the year I had, it just adds an emphasis on trying to do well," said Lester after his fourth win of the season (4-5). "That's where I tried to do too much and maybe was overthrowing the ball a little bit. I think now maybe we can get into a little bit of a rhythm and pitch a little bit better."
Perhaps Sunday's outing will be that moment like those Lester starts in late April last season, when suddenly it just made sense for the lefty.
The reality is that the Red Sox need that to be the case.
As unfair as it might be to single out Lester, but this is the lot in life the 25-year-old has pitched himself into. Even when the results aren't there, he is one of the Red Sox' aces, and with that title comes great responsibilities. A lot rests on Lester, a fact that he understands and embraces.
"I don't think it's hard. I like it," said Lester carrying the mantle of 'The Man'. "I think it adds responsibility and an added emphasis on doing well. When you're not going well it adds emphasis on why you're not going well, and you start thinking, 'Why am I not doing what I did last year, or anything in between?'
"I like it. I like guys looking at me, whatever you want to call it... more or less a good pitcher, and that's what I want every five days, to know the other team respects what I can do, knowing my team has my back, and we'll go out there and battle. That's what we're trying to do."
Lester didn't want to focus on his career-high strikeout game, instead rueing the fact he couldn't make his 115-pitch outing translate into at least one more inning. But for those looking at Lester as the top-of-the-rotation stalwart most expected this season, it was hard to ignore the the image portrayed by the Sox' starter.
There was the consistent mid-90's fastball, cavalcade of cutters, and more change-ups (catcher Jason Varitek estimated approximately 20) than Lester had ever thrown in a big league game.
Perhaps most important was that Lester didn't give in when momentum was sliding over toward the Blue Jays.
Coming into Sunday, he had lived through a 13.02 ERA with runners in scoring position, a bugaboo that had haunted him in last start when Justin Morneau ruined his outing with a game-altering three-run blast.
This time trouble lingered from the outset, with the Blue Jays coming out of the gate with runners on second and third with one out. But Lester limited the hosts to just one sacrifice fly and that was it. Five innings later the lefty would walk off the mound having allowed just that one Vernon Wells fly out to escape the infield.
It was just like old times -- the Red Sox needed their ace, and he came through. It can't be an aberration, a fact Lester fully understands.
"I think just with having a year like last year, especially being part of this organization, having a target on your back and teams wanting to beat you, I think that just adds emphasis," Lester said. "All five guys in this rotation, teams come into series knowing we're going to give them our best and they're going to give us their best."
WHY THE LINEUP LOOKED DIFFERENT
Dustin Pedroia was one of the few members of the Red Sox who was actually familiar with Toronto starter Ricky Romero, having faced the lefty when he was relieving for Cal State Fullerton and Pedroia was a member of the Arizona State baseball team. But that's not why Pedroia was hitting first, Sunday.
And the move of Pedroia to the top spot, J.D. Drew to No. 2, Kevin Youkilis to the No. 3 hole, and Jason Bay to cleanup wasn't because any of them thrived particularly in those respective spots. (That was, however, with the possible exception of Youkilis, who came in hitting .348 when batting third.)
There was one aspect of the move that might have supplied the impetus for the old switcheroo. Jacoby Ellsbury -- who moved to the eighth spot -- carried a .268 on-base percentage against lefties coming into Sunday, a trend that a Red Sox lineup that hadn't scored more than three runs in any of the previous five games could afford.
And guess what? It worked.
Pedroia hit a three-run homer off of his old Pac-10 nemesis -- his first long ball since his first at-bat of the season -- Youkilis and Bay launched back-to-back home runs, with the Sox' first baseman also having clubbed a first-inning solo homer, and, most importantly, the Red Sox scored eight runs, with everybody in the starting lineup but Jason Varitek claiming at least one hit.
"We set out our lineup and then I think you let the guys play and see how it goes," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "We're getting to the point where we're 50 games into the season and I think the numbers start meaning something. It's not just a week or two. We need to have our on-base guys for the guys in the middle of the order. It's important. When everybody is hitting on all cylinders, that can maybe not be noticed. But when we're not, it becomes a little more noticeable."
A CHANGE OF STANCE FOR ORITZ
When David Ortiz assumed his position at the plate Saturday, there was something different. Nothing dramatic, but it was there nonetheless.
While awaiting each pitch Ortiz was bouncing his bat on his back shoulder until the pitcher's approach was in full swing. It was something he had never done, and wasn't sure would continue.
But then came Sunday -- a day after taking an 0 for 4 but hitting the ball hard twice -- and Ortiz was back at it. This time it paid off. In his second at-bat, the Sox DH rocketed one of his hardest hit balls of the season off the center field wall for a double. It was the reward both Ortiz and hitting coach Dave Magadan were looking after what has been a wave of adjustments.
"It's something I brought up to him about four or five days ago and then all of a sudden (Saturday) he showed up doing it in his pre-game stuff," said Magadan, who suggested the same approach to Sean Burroughs in San Diego, but the then-Padres' third baseman didn't take to it. "We started talking about it and I just told him, 'Yeah, give it a shot.'"
The impetus for the shoulder tapping with the bat is so that Ortiz' swing can start on more of a flat plane, instead of looping around too much, which has been a problem.
"We wanted to flatten his bat a little bit. It was getting a little too erect and he he loads it's almost too late, so we wanted to flatten it a little bit," Magadan explained. "I know people are sick and tired of hearing it, but his batting practices have been unbelievable.
"I just don't want him to get to a point where he's thinking about his stance and mechanics and all of that instead of focusing in on the baseball. It's just a reminder for him."
BAY DOESN'T DIG THE LONG BALL (CONTESTS)
Bay, who is second in the American League with 15 homers after hitting his solo blast Sunday, said that if asked he will not participate in the State Farm Home Run Derby during All-Star Weekend. MLB had announced that Bay was leading all AL outfielders in voting, last week.
The Sox' left fielder has participated in the event one other time, in 2005 in Detroit, ending up with zero home runs. When asked the following year to participate in his then-home ballpark in Pittsburgh, Bay declined.
"I vowed to never to do it again. Plus, if you ever have seen my BP you could see it's not my thing," Bay said. "I'll never do it again because it didn't allow me to enjoy my time at the All-Star Game. When I was done it was the best feeling in the world because it was over with. It took away from my enjoyment of the whole thing."
SMOLTZ, LOWRIE KEEP MOVING FORWARD
John Smoltz did his part in keeping his timetable intact, going five, strong innings, allowing one run on four hits while striking out five and not walking a batter while making his third rehab start, pitching for Single A Greenville. He threw 73 pitches, 52 for strikes.
"I think I'm going to get a little more complete each time," Smoltz said. "For the most part, I'm really pleased with today's effort. I felt really fresh in the fifth inning, even though it's the longest stint I've had."
Lowrie took soft tosses for the second straight day, hitting 20 balls from each side of the plate.