Rays beat Lester at his own game
Typically a strength, fastball betrays Boston's ace in Game 3
BOSTON -- Having already lost three times to Jon Lester this season, the Rays did not need to be reminded how devastating his cut fastball can be as a put-away pitch, nor would they require much of a refresher on his dominant Fenway Park record.
But seeing the Red Sox left-hander for 20 mostly fruitless innings during the regular season sparked some ideas within the Rays' clubhouse. Tampa Bay went into Monday's Game 3 of the American League Championship Series with a blueprint and came away doing what no team had been able to -- hang a postseason "L" on the 24-year-old's shoulders.
"We had a good idea coming into it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's always a matter of execution. Regardless of the best-laid plans, it's always about execution. The pitcher executes a pitch. Contrary to the hitter, he's always going to come out on top -- almost always. Tonight, we had a plan -- we had a game plan -- we stayed with it and eventually, we got pitches that we could handle."
Lester had a thought process as well -- to establish his fastball early in the count, throwing first-pitch heaters to 10 of the first 11 Rays hitters. The left-hander said that he did not notice much of a difference in procedure from the club against which he posted a 0.90 ERA in three starts this year.
"They've always been an aggressive team against me," Lester said. "I threw the ball pretty well, but two pitches got away from me. I didn't execute them and I didn't stay away from the big inning."
Jon Lester's game-by-game playoff stats
|* -- pitched in relief|
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said he thought Lester's stuff and command looked like they could lead to a deep start after Lester set down the Rays in order in the first inning, but it all unraveled rather quickly, as the Fenway faithful were quieted by five unanswered Rays runs through the first three frames.
"They capitalized and took some good swings," Varitek said. "I think more importantly, they capitalized and got themselves in good hitters' counts and had good pitches to hit. It's a combination. We made some selection errors, and I'll take the blame for that. They did a good job of hitting, of course."
The Rays touched Lester for an unearned run in the second inning before Lester ran into trouble in the third, allowing four runs on four hits, including home runs to B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria.
"I had the big inning, and that broke the back a little bit," Lester said. "You've got to tip your hat to them. They did a good piece of hitting. B.J. turned on a ball I left over the plate, and I hung a cutter to Longoria. When you do things like that to good hitters, they're supposed to do what they did."
Jason Bartlett opened the inning by driving an 0-1 curveball into left field for a single, and after looking at a curve, Akinori Iwamura doubled off the Green Monster in left field.
Dialing long distance
Three pitches transpired before Lester lost command of a fastball, and the young center fielder Upton made him pay, depositing the offering onto Lansdowne Street for a three-run homer -- the first earned runs Lester had allowed in 24 2/3 postseason innings.
Upton said that looking for fastballs played a part in the Rays' plan, particularly in staying out of situations in which Lester could go to other parts of his arsenal.
"His cutter is really good," Upton said. "It's his put-away pitch, and he keeps it down and in a lot, and a lot of people swing at it. I think we really didn't bite on it today. We made him throw a couple more balls over the plate that obviously he didn't want to."
One batter later, Longoria lit into a Lester cutter that acted more like a slider and got too much of the plate, driving it over the Green Monster in left-center field to give the Rays a commanding five-run lead. Longoria said that his eyes lit up at the cutter, which didn't possess its usual zip.
"He's usually able to throw that cutter underneath the hands pretty consistently," Longoria said. "From the beginning, he wasn't able to establish that pitch. And when you don't establish it, as a hitter, you don't really have to worry about it. He didn't throw one for a strike on me, except for the one that I hit out. And I don't think he threw many, except to the lefties, that were for strikes."
Lester vs. Rays in 2008
Lester did settle in after the troublesome third inning, recording eight more outs before turning the game over to the Red Sox's bullpen, but the damage had already been done. Lester said that there was not a problem with the overall selection.
"At times, I was effective with everything," Lester said. "I didn't execute -- for the most part -- two pitches, and they hurt me. With this team, you can't have big innings like that, where they get action after action and they put up a crooked number. It's tough to come back from."
But Varitek seemed to have some regrets about the outing.
"I still think that if we did a few things between Jonny and I, we'd have been able to keep it at bay," Varitek said.
No matter; Lester said he was ready to turn the page to his next start, which potentially would come in Game 7 of the ALCS if and when the series returns to Tropicana Field.
"It's like I've said all along -- execute pitches," Lester said. "I didn't do that in that [third] inning, and I paid for it. Hopefully, the next time I can go out and make an adjustment and execute pitches when I need to. Hopefully, the outcome is different."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.