Closing Time: Dominant performances from Jon Lester, David Ortiz give Sox series win in Baltimore

July 28, 2013 - 12:38 pm

BALTIMORE -- There is a renewed swagger to Jon Lester, a restored confidence in his ability to attack opponents with a blunt arsenal that forces them on the defensive. Building off of an impressive 6 1/3 inning, two-run, eight-strikeout, no-walk outing against the Rays last week, Lester leaned early and often on a powerful 92-95 mph fastball to subdue the Orioles. Lester once again attacked the strike zone, through 65 of 99 pitches (66 percent) for strikes, and simply tore through the Orioles lineup in the process. In seven shutout innings, Lester gave up just four hits (all singles) and two walks while matching a season-high with eight strikeouts. Of his 21 outs, 17 came via strikeout (8) or grounder (9), underscoring the degree to which he was able to get either no contact or bad contact on a day when he relied primarily on his heater. Of his 99 pitches, more than two-thirds were fastballs, a pitch that he proved capable of using to dominant effect. He is using his fastball in a similar fashion to the way he did in April and early-May, and indeed, the pitcher suggested that he sees considerable promise with where the pitch is now as compared to that outstanding stretch at the start of the year." "I'd say as far as power, I feel like I've got more of it now. It's just that part of the season where I feel like guys like me and [John Lackey], you get stronger right now, especially with your heater," said Lester. "As far as command, it's gotten a lot better through some ups and downs, but you always have to rely on your fastball. When you start getting away from that, that's what gets you in trouble. We were able to pound down and away today and get a lot of weak contact and get some outs." It was the third time this year -- and the first since a complete-game one-hitter on May 10 -- that Lester did not allow a run. Over his last three starts, each against playoff-caliber foes (Oakland, Tampa Bay, Baltimore), Lester has a 2.29 ERA with 20 strikeouts and five walks in 19 2/3 innings. It would be premature to say that he is once again locked into the same overpowering form that he exhibited at the start of the year, but unquestionably, the development represents one of the team's most promising signs in the early stages of the second half. "A Jon Lester pitching to his capabilities is going to be one of the better pitchers in the league," said manager John Farrell. "He's shown it the last couple of times out." The Sox claimed a 5-0 win in the rubber match of the three-game set in Baltimore, not only leaving for Fenway Park a full five games in front of the Orioles but also, following the Yankees' 6-5 walkoff win over the Rays, back in first place in the AL East by half a game heading into Monday's one-game matchup with the Rays in Boston. WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX -- David Ortiz, who was booed lustily in his plate appearances at Camden Yards one day after destroying a bullpen phone, offered a rejoinder from the batter's box, going 4-for-4 while rifling a single through the shift and then unloading on a 2-0 fastball for a two-run homer to left-center before later adding another single. "After he took it out on the phone last night, he took it out on the baseball today," chuckled Farrell. "He always elevates his game," added teammate Dustin Pedroia. "Seems like when the pressure's on or when people get on him or something like that. He swung the bat great and gave us a huge boost today." The homer -- his first of the year to the left of center -- gave Ortiz a team-leading 20 for the year, his 11th straight Red Sox season with at least 20 homers, tied for the second-most season of at least 20 homers in Red Sox history with Dwight Evans and Jim Rice, behind only Ted Williams. He's the first player in team history with 11 straight years of 20-plus homers. The homer also snapped a stretch of 12 straight games without a homer for Ortiz, his longest drought since a 19-gamer at the end of the 2011 season. On the year, in 86 games this year, Ortiz is now hitting .329 with a .413 OBP and .605 slugging mark, numbers that are virtually identical to the .318/.415/.611 line he posted in 90 games in 2012. -- Mike Napoli gave the Sox an immediate lead in the top of the first with a two-out, RBI double to right, and later added another double as part of his 2-for-4 game. Since the All-Star break, he's 9-for-29 (.310) with with a .375 OBP and seven extra-base hits (four doubles, three homers) in eight games. -- The Red Sox lineup appears to have reclaimed the strike zone. The team negotiated five walks against Orioles starter Jason Hammel, helping to knock him out of the game after 5 1/3 innings. Shane Victorino, who hadn't walked in the previous 11 games, accepted a pair of free passes. WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX -- Dustin Pedroia went 0-for-4 (with a walk). Since the All-Star break, he's now 3-for-35 (.086) with no extra-base hits and a .154 OBP. Pedroia's average dropped below .300 (to .298) for the first time since May 7. Pedroia, who drove a ball to the warning track in center that was tracked down by Adam Jones and lined out to left, did not consider the stretch cause for alarm. "You get a little frustrated sometimes when you square the ball up and don't get hits," said Pedroia. "They made some good plays. That's part of the game. When you're a good hitter you hit balls at people sometimes. So you've got to keep grinding." Still, he made his presence felt not only with the walk but also with a pair of key pivots on the double play, including one where he was wiped out at second by Adam Jones to end the sixth inning and allow Lester and the Sox to escape what had been a two-on, no-out threat with a 3-0 lead intact. "Pedey is fearless when it comes to turning a double play. He hangs in tough when a runner's bearing down on him," noted Farrell. "Iggy's got such quick hands and quick release, he gets it to him in pretty good fashion there. In that part of the game, where it's still just a three-run game, it was a key play for us." -- Stephen Drew could not build on his two-homer game on Saturday, going 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts and a walk. -- Like Pedroia, Jose Iglesias played tremendous defense and started a pair of 5-4-3 double plays, delivering considerable impact with his glove. However, he also went 0-for-4, continuing a stretch of three-plus weeks in which he's made virtually no offensive impact. In 19 games since July 5, Iglesias is hitting .169 (sixth worst in the majors) with a .211 OBP (seventh-worst), .169 slugging mark (second worst) and .380 OPS (second worst). He is the Sox' best defensive third baseman (or, in all likelihood, defensive anything), but the Sox are facing an increasingly stark decision between offense and defense when putting him in the lineup.