ACES HIGH

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ACES HIGH

Quick. Guess who leads the Red Sox in wins this season? Josh Beckett? Wrong. That would be Daisuke Matsuzaka. Guess which starter leads the team in ERA? Beckett? Wrong again. That would also be Matsuzaka.

With a 14-2 record, and a 2.74 ERA, Matsuzaka is finally living up to the hype this year. But those are the sort results the Sox were expecting when they signed him to a six-year deal after the 2006 season.

But perhaps the biggest surprise this year has been Jon Lester.

By now we've all seen the highly impressive and well-publicized resume: just the third pitcher in World Series history to win a Series clincher in his first post-season start; a no-hitter at Fenway Park in May; a complete-game shutout at Yankee Stadium in July; and A.L. pitcher of the month for July, going 3-0 in four starts, in which he allowed just seven earned runs and lasted at least seven innings each outing.

After some early struggles this season, Lester has gone 9-1 since May 25. He is in the midst of a true breakout season, perhaps even surpassing the boldest expectations the organization had for him. The lefty has now made 16 quality starts, tying Tim Wakefield for the team lead.

And Lester, who famously recovered from cancer treatment, is now so strong that he leads the club with 167.2 innings, surpassing the 144.1 career innings he'd amassed coming into this season. The 24-year-old is giving up less than a hit an inning, and has yielded just 12 homers this year.

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the fact that he's overcome his tendency to walk batters. The walks led to high pitch counts and early exits. The issue plagued his Major League development, right up until early this season. But over his last 10 starts, going back to June 22, Lester has not given up more than three free passes in any game. In fact, over that period the emerging star has averaged just 1.3 walks per game, a stellar figure. And in all but one (when he went five), Lester lasted at least seven innings.

The bottom line is that Lester is on his way to becoming an ace, if he isn't one already. One thing's for certain; he's become a stopper. In nine starts following a Red Sox loss this season, Lester is 5-1, with a 1.41 ERA, 14 walks, and 48 K's.

Lester has become a pitcher that manager Terry Francona can count on every fifth day. When he pitches, the Sox expect to win. Overall, the Washington native is now 12-4 this season, a stunning 75% winning percentage. And his 3.17 ERA is ninth in the A.L. For comparison's sake, Beckett is 11-9, with a 4.34 ERA.

Jon Lester may have gone from developing young left-hander to fully developed Major League pitching sensation. How much better he can get is anybody's guess, but that possibility has got to terrify opposing hitters. As it stands, they are only batting .258 against him.

Having Lester, Beckett and Matsuzaka anchoring the Red Sox staff over the next few years will make them perennial contenders, and the envy of the league.

Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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