Confident Lester up to Game 1 challenge
Lefty gets opening nod in ALDS for second year in a row
ANAHEIM -- Past success guarantees nothing, but it reinforces track records and it certainly has its advantages.
The way Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester sees it, if a team has beaten another before, it does say something.
"I guess it's just that added confidence," Lester said. "I wouldn't say that in an arrogant way, but we know we've played this team well, and they play us tough."
Lester will take the mound first for the Red Sox on Thursday in the first game of their American League Division Series with the Angels. First pitch is scheduled for 9:37 p.m. ET in Anaheim.
The Angels will turn to John Lackey.
These teams will meet in the ALDS for the fourth time in the past six years, with the Red Sox claiming all three in that span -- 2004, 2007 and 2008.
A year ago, Lester pitched in Game 1 and came away with the 4-1 victory, yielding one unearned run on six hits with seven strikeouts and a walk over seven innings.
"This isn't going to be an easy series," Lester said. "It never has been. So I guess it's just that comfort level of knowing, hey, if we get in a bind, we've done it before. You just draw from that past experience, and hopefully, you're able to take something away from that and use it in this series."
The 25-year-old hopes to carry over the momentum of a sparkling season, in which he was 15-8 with a 3.41 ERA with 225 strikeouts.
One reason he is taking the ball in Game 1 is that he got stronger as the season progressed. Since the All-Star break, Lester is 7-2 with a 2.82 ERA. Down the stretch, he was even tougher. In his final six starts, he went 5-1 with a 2.52 ERA.
"He's been a pretty good pitcher for a while now," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "He started out the season kind of slow, but once he got on track, he's been on track ever since. He just continues to get stronger."
|Red Sox's Jon Lester||Angels' John Lackey|
|2009 REGULAR SEASON|
|Overall||32 GS, 15-8, 64 BB, 225 K||27 GS, 11-8, 3.83 ERA, 47 BB, 139 K|
|Key stat||Only MLB lefty with 200-plus strikeouts in '08||Left-handed batters are hitting. 271 vs. .247 by right-handers|
|Career||5 GS, 2-2, 2.25 ERA||9 GS, 2-3, 3.39|
|AT ANGEL STADIUM|
|2009||No games||13 GS, 6-5, 3.59|
|Career||2 GS, 1-0, 8.64 ERA||111 GS, 49-32, 3.72|
|AGAINST THIS OPPONENT|
|2009 regular season||No games||1 GS, 0-1, 2.35|
|Career||4 GS 1-1, 7.78 ERA||9 GS, 3-7, 5.25|
|Loves to face||Chone Figgins (2-for-8, 0 SB)||Mike Lowell (3-for-21, 1 RBI, 7 K)|
|Hates to face||Gary Matthews, Jr. (3-for-6, 2 HRs)||David Ortiz (11-for-33, 2 HR, 10 RBI)|
|Why he'll win||Dominated LAA in '08 postseason||Experience counts, stuff too|
|Pitcher beware||No easy outs in Angels' lineup||Ellsbury can be as dangerous as Figgins|
|Bottom line||Overpowering stuff||Due for a big effort|
Lester's cut-fastball, Francona says, has become "a weapon against righties and lefties."
Mixed in with his fastball is a biting breaking ball and tempting changeup.
"He's a complete pitcher," Francona said. "A big, strong kid who seems to be able to endure a lot of innings and stay strong while he's doing it."
The Angels also haven't seen him pitch this season. Typically, the advantage goes to the pitcher the longer he hasn't faced the same hitters.
Angels outfielder Bobby Abreu, who spent a few years with the Yankees, has the most history of anyone on Los Angeles against Lester. He is 4-for-13 (.308) with two doubles and three RBIs.
"He knows how to pitch both inside and outside," Abreu says of the Red Sox left-hander. "He dominates the corners of the strike zone. When he has good command, he does damage. That's what he's been doing this year."
The Angels present a number of threats to any pitcher, including their ability to run the bases. Los Angeles finished third in the Major Leagues in stolen bases with 148.
Lester understands the importance of holding runners on base.
"It's nothing that we haven't seen from them before," Lester said. "They've always been a team that runs and runs the bases well. You just have to be conscious of varying your looks and your holds. But at the same time, you can't take the focus away from the hitter at home plate."
For a pitcher in his fourth big league season, Lester certainly is big-game tested. He was the winning pitcher in the closeout game of the 2007 World Series, tossing 5 2/3 shutout innings at Colorado.
"I think we have all the confidence in the world in him," Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said. "He's proven, even if you go back to '07, I don't think he was anywhere near being 100 percent and he pitched a heck of a game in the World Series. I don't think the stage surprises him or intimidates him at all. He's got great stuff. He's shut down big offenses. We're looking forward to him doing a good job in Game 1."
If Lester steps up like he has in the past, he could help his team set the tempo for the short series.
"I think it just goes back to that comfort level," Lester said. "You know, once you experience [success], it's something that never goes away. It's not something you're going to forget or just put in the storage department and never remember again. I think once you get one game under your belt, it makes every other game easier."
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.