10:06 PM EDT, August 18, 2012
NEW YORK —
In a season when the greatest rivalry in sports has been the Red Sox vs. themselves, let this stand as more than a left-handed compliment:
In recent games, Jon Lester is pitching like the ace he can be.
On a Saturday when the most exciting intramural action in New York was across the river in New Jersey where Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez were vying for preseason snaps vs. the Giants, let this also stand as more than just another left-handed compliment:
We haven't seen two Yalies have so much fun playing pitch and catch in, oh, 129 years … since Jack Jones and Al Hubbard. And just how smart are lefty reliever Craig Breslow and catcher Ryan Lavarnway?
"We didn't even need to put down signs," joked Breslow after he had coerced Robinson Cano into hitting into a crucial eighth-inning double play during Boston's 4-1 victory over the Yankees.
"I got a lot smarter just putting them out there," said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine.
But before we get too deep into the first all-Yale battery of the modern era, let's scratch at an Ivy League kind of statistical argument being made that Lester has actually pitched better than the 6-10 record he took into his one-run, five-hit beauty over seven innings.
"Absolutely," Valentine said when the premise was presented to him. "All the statistical information we have, a lot of balls that have been hit have gone for hits and a lot of them were well-placed. Sometimes it just happens in a year and sometimes it just stops. Hopefully, it stopped."
The lefty took a career-worst 5.20 ERA to the Yankee Stadium mound, but there are some more erudite numbers to consider. Like a career-high BABIP Valentine referred to Friday on the radio. That's batting average on balls in play, if you are keeping score at home, and Lester's was at a career high .323 before he coerced 14 Yankee groundsouts over seven innings. Some of bad BABIP is bad luck, balls just fall in, and it could help explain the career-low 63.6 percent of runners he left on base, too.
The argument is there have been maybe 10 games Lester could have won and didn't. Some balls dropped. Some bullpen moves didn't bail him out. A win turned into a late-inning no-decision. A no-decision turned into a loss. Then again, as Bill Parcells loved to say, you are what your record says you are."
"I said a month ago, I'm not giving up, things will turn," said Lester, who has allowed only two runs and eight hits over 13 innings in his past two winning starts. "The past handful of starts, in fact, I feel they have.
"I don't want to make excuses [about bad luck]. I just try to execute pitches. I pitch until Bobby takes the ball out of my hand."
That would be Lester's response, too, when he was asked about being left in by Valentine for 11 runs over four innings in a horrible pounding in Toronto on July 22. That's the pounding that reportedly had angry teammates sticking up for Lester and texting owners for a meeting.
"I pitch until he takes the ball out of my hand," Lester repeated when asked if he was offended.
"I watched the results since that game where he has pitched much better," Valentine said Friday on ESPN New York Radio. "His arm didn't fall off. There were factors with the bullpen, the series coming up, games we had played prior. Jon was needed to pitch more than the two innings where he gave up nine runs.
"I'm sure in my heart of hearts, if he had a problem with it, he would have expressed his displeasure. He didn't. I get it. I like it. I like that his teammates are looking out for each other."
On this day, Lester helped himself when Alex Gonzalez spotted him a 2-0 first-inning lead and he didn't give it back after Derek Jeter led off with a walk and Nick Swisher singled. Lester praised Lavarnway for helping to slow him down early and get his rhythm. Lavarnway said Lester's cutter, his bread and butter, was working well and he threw more successful sinkers.
"Even the fastball that Curtis Granderson hit for a home run had a lot of life to it," Valentine said. "His ball was moving in, both sides of the plate, change-up, curveball, confident, aggressive good-looking pitcher.
"His breaking ball is a lot harder, from 68-69 mph to 74-75, too. He was a very determined pitcher."
Lavarnway called it a "bulldog mentality."
He didn't mean that as a pun. But it certainly was a great day for Bulldog Nation. When Breslow, acquired from Arizona at the July trading deadline, came in to pitch in the eighth, he made some Yale history. The statistical information of the day makes it unclear if Hubbard, who also played shortstop for the Philadelphia A's in 1883, caught Jones. But according to The Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Major League Baseball, he did go behind the plate for his fellow Yalie on Sept. 15, 1883.
At any rate it is modern day history.
"I got a text from my college coach [former major league pitcher John Stuper] already," Breslow said.
After a one-out single by Swisher, Valentine turned to Breslow to face the big-hitting lefty. Cano bit on a cutter down and away and grounded the ball to first base for an inning-ending double play.
"He's pretty aggressive, looking maybe to tie the game [at 3] in that situation," Breslow said. "He's a powerful offensive weapon."
"We asked for a double play and we got a double play," Valentine said. "I don't know how that happened. Dustin Pedroia just came in, said, 'Let's get a double play.' I guess we hadn't asked for it too many times before."
Valentine said he was recruited by Yale out of Stamford and saw a game against Harvard when Calvin Hill played.
"Yeah, I fooled them," Valentine said, before joking that he doesn't even talk to the Yalies. "It's funny. Bres is such a competitive kid. You wouldn't think he carries those degrees around with him. (Breslow majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry; Lavarnway majored in philosophy.) He's all about the competition."
It's is only the second time in major-league history that a pair of Elis have been on the same team. Frank Quinn and Sam Mele briefly played for the Red Sox in 1949.
"I definitely look at Craig first as a baseball player, second as a friend, third as a Yale alumni," Lavarnway said. "He has been great to me since before I was drafted. Coming back, talking to me, making the transition to the pros."
"Ryan caught like a Bulldog today, too," said Breslow, fulling embracing the pun. "It's pretty neat. It speaks to the brand of baseball the Ivy League is turning out right now."
"If we could have had Will Veneble [a Princeton grad playing for the Padres] at the plate, I guess that would put the finishing touches on the matchup. But I so think there's a baseball coach in New Haven who's pretty proud today."
There surely must be.
Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant