Days before Red Sox manager John Farrell would announce his entire rotation for the American League Championship Series, he proudly proclaimed his Game 1 starter was an easy choice: Lester.
On Saturday night, in front of a packed house at Fenway Park, Lester started his fourth postseason Game 1 and lowered his ERA in those four games to 2.00 with 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball. The Red Sox lost to the Tigers, 1-0, as they were held without a hit until the ninth inning. But the Red Sox could take comfort knowing their ace is still an ace.
In 10 playoff appearances, Lester has a 2.41 ERA.
"It's just a special time of year," Lester said.
And the Red Sox have come to expect special performances from him.
With his fourth Game 1 start, Lester has started more of the all-important series openers than any other pitcher in Red Sox history. He passed Josh Beckett, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, who had three apiece.
"He's a big game pitcher," said second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "I've seen it so many times."
At times it was easy; at times Lester had to be a magician.
The first inning followed the game plan: Keep the top of the Tigers' order off base. Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter made two quick outs, making the subsequent hits by Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder ultimately meaningless when Lester induced a ground ball from Victor Martinez.
The veteran Sox lefty worked three 1-2-3 innings after that and finally ran into trouble in the fifth, when Jhonny Peralta doubled to start the inning.
That's when Lester got help from his defense. Omar Infante hit a weak grounder to first base and Mike Napoli immediately turned and threw the ball to second, where Stephen Drew made a quick tag on Peralta's thigh right before his foot hit the bag. Second-base umpire Ron Kulpa ruled the close play in favor of the Red Sox.
Shane Victorino booted an Alex Avila single the next at-bat, allowing Infante to reach third, but he was nailed at home shortly afterward when he took off from third on a Jose Iglesias ground ball. Middlebrooks fielded the ball cleanly on his backhand and gunned down Infante with time to spare.
Lester then got Austin Jackson to fly out to right field to end the inning and keep the Tigers off the board.
"Will made a couple great plays, the play at home, staying in front of a ball that takes a bad hop," Lester said. "Stephen making that play [in the ninth inning]; Vic running some balls down for us; Nap making a great play throwing in front of the runner there, saving me some pitches. It was a great game. That was postseason baseball tonight. Sometimes you've just got to tip your hat, show up tomorrow and keep grinding it out."
Lester, who gave up the game's lone run on Peralta's two-out single in the sixth, also had to work around what appeared to be an inconsistent strike zone from home-plate umpire Joe West.
In the past, Lester has had trouble controlling his emotions on the mound following disagreements with umpires. This time, he exchanged a few words with West between innings and never let it affect him.
"From what I heard, he was miked and I got the typical Joe West answer," Lester said. "Just wanted to get some information. He gave it to me, like I said, in his typical way.
"I mean, for me, I didn't feel like there was many pitches in question. You'd have to ask our hitters on that side. I can't really comment for our hitters. For me, I felt there was one, maybe two, just kind of your typical night. You're going to have a few here or there that you felt you threw pretty well that are just off or just down or whatever. I thought he was fine."
The Red Sox now know what they're getting with Lester. That's why he was the Game 1 starter.
"You know Lester is going to do Lester," said outfielder Quintin Berry. "He's going to go in there and give us the best shot he can and give us the best opportunity. He did it, man. You feel bad as a team when a guy throws like that and you can't put any runs on the board. But it easily could've been twisted the other way."