For Lester, few regrets, no excuses
Lefty credits Rays after defeat sends Red Sox into offseason
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jon Lester pitched the Red Sox to a World Series sweep of the Rockies last October and an American League Division Series win over the Angels earlier this month. He had another chance to advance his club on Sunday.
Lester did not pitch the Red Sox to the World Series.
But of all the strange feelings that come with elimination for someone who knew little but October success in Boston, regret wasn't one.
Out of the 107 pitches that Lester threw in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, the only one he'd like back is the full-count fastball he left up to Willy Aybar that was hit for a seventh-inning solo homer and gave the Rays a 3-1 lead, eventually the final score.
"I left every other pitch on the field, busted my butt every pitch," Lester said.
And as he talked with reporters in a nearly silent visitors' clubhouse at Tropicana Field, Lester uttered some of the toughest words for a young pitcher who has known nothing but success in October: He just got beat.
For someone who won 16 games during the regular season and didn't lose successive starts in his young career until his two ALCS defeats to Matt Garza and the Rays, losing isn't easy.
"You have to sometimes realize that it's not all going to be peaches and cream," Lester said. "It's not always going to be winning the World Series, [being] on top of the world. You're going to have your ups and downs. This is a little chink in the armor, and we'll see how guys respond to this come next Spring Training -- myself included."
They weren't very big chinks for Lester on Sunday.
Lester came in with an extra day of rest following his loss in Game 3, when the Rays scored four earned runs on eight hits and two homers in 5 2/3 innings. Lester's struggles raised the question of how he was coping with the increased workload of a deep run in the postseason. Combine Lester's October outings with his regular-season work, and the left-hander entered Sunday with 230 innings this year, 85 more than his previous big league career totals.
Lester's first circuit through the Rays' order quieted a lot of doubt. Not only did he retire the side in order through the first three innings, he used a mid-90s fastball and strong movement to strike out four of the nine batters and allow just one ball out of the infield. B.J. Upton's line drive took right fielder J.D. Drew to the warning track for the second out of the opening inning, but Lester responded by striking out Carlos Pena swinging with a 77-mph curveball.
Lester vs. Rays in 2008
Carl Crawford struck out waving at a high fastball in the second inning. After Dioner Navarro struck out leading off the bottom of the third, Lester pinpointed a 95-mph fastball on the outside corner for a called third strike on Rocco Baldelli for the second out.
This was the Lester who picked up a depleted Red Sox pitching staff over the regular season. On Sunday, he was keeping his team ahead early against Garza.
"I thought Jon was tremendous out of the chute," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He had power with all of his pitches. He threw enough really good breaking balls to kind of slow them down a little bit -- he had some power on his two-seamer and his cutter."
Not until Akinori Iwamura punched an opposite-field line drive to left field leading off the fourth inning did the Rays finally have a baserunner. Three batters later, they had a run.
After Lester fanned Upton and induced a fielder's choice from Pena, he was one strike away from ending the threat, having sent Evan Longoria swinging and missing at a 2-1 curveball. Lester tried to follow that pitch by getting Longoria to chase a fastball away, which he did. But Longoria went with the pitch and lined it into the right-field corner, sending Pena around to score from first.
"If I throw that pitch every time, I don't think he gets that," Lester said. "It's one of those deals where he got the good part of the bat on it and kept it fair. You just tip your hat."
Francona in elimination games
|The Red Sox are 9-2 in elimination games under manager Terry Francona.|
Two-strike hits and tipped hats were the theme of night for Lester, who had two-strike counts on the first three batters in the fifth inning, including an 0-2 hole for Aybar and Baldelli.
Aybar golfed a breaking ball off the left-field fence for a leadoff double. Lester worked back out of a 3-0 count on Navarro to induce a ground ball to shortstop, but it took Alex Cora too deep into the hole for a play.
Baldelli had struck out five times in six career at-bats against Lester leading to that point. He swung and missed at a first-pitch fastball and fouled off another, and Lester looked to jam him, but Baldelli pulled a ground ball through the left side to plate the go-ahead run.
"It's just perfectly placed through the hole," Lester said. "I executed the pitch I wanted to. I got a cutter in on his hands, and he hit it through the hole."
The Aybar homer, too, came with two strikes, the result of a backup cutter that wandered belt high.
"It's a little easier to swallow considering the fact that it wasn't a 3-2 ballgame," Lester said. "But at the same time, I think that gave them a little extra cushion."
Asked if he was tired by that point, Lester paused for thought.
"It's all relative, I guess," Lester said. "Everybody's tired right now. Not by any means is it an excuse that you're tired. I physically felt fine, competed."
Considering what he has meant to the Red Sox this year, Lester didn't need excuses. This game won't haunt him during the offseason, but it will give him some thought.
"I felt like I executed really well," Lester said, "and they just beat me. And sometimes, that happens. Sometimes, you run into a pitcher like Garza who's got no-hit stuff, and you just have to battle. That's what we did. It just wasn't our night."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.