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Boston's Lester deserves to start Game 1 of ALDS

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In October of 2007, Josh Beckett was the best pitcher on the planet. He started the first game of each of the Red Sox's three postseason series and won them all. And just for good measure, he won Game 5 of the ALCS.
In 28 postseason innings, he allowed just five earned runs. He finished 4-0, and while Mike Lowell was named World Series MVP, there was little doubt that Beckett was the Red Sox's postseason MVP. Four years earlier, at 23, he went into Yankee Stadium and on short rest, pitched the Florida Marlins to an improbable title. The point: Beckett's postseason portfolio needs no embellishment. He's proven himself to be a supreme October mound warrior. But assuming Beckett and the rest of the Red Sox reach the postseason again next month — and that's far from assured — the truth of the matter is that Jon Lester is the better choice to start Game 1 of the American League Division Series. Beckett is winless in his last four starts, stuck on win No. 14 for last three weeks. Beckett's last start — seven innings, three-runs allowed — was his best in a while and evidence that he could be on the verge of turning around his slump. There's no such uncertainly, however, surrounding Lester, who over the last 3 ½ months, has been every bit as dominant and much more consistent than Beckett — and just about every other pitcher in the American League, for that matter. The case could be made, in fact, that after a shaky start for the first two months, Lester has been the best lefty starter in either league this season. "How many guys would you take over Lester in the American League right now?" a longtime major league scout asked last weekend before Lester dismantled the Chicago White Sox. "Whatever the number is, it's not many, is it?" The numbers don't lie, but in this case, neither do they tell the full story. Since May 31, when he beat Toronto and turned his season around, Lester is 9-2 with a 2.17 ERA. The Sox have won 14 of his last 18 starts and in 11 of those outings, Lester allowed one or no earned runs. In perhaps the best measure of his effectiveness and consistency, Lester has allowed more than three earned runs in that span just once. But his win total should be higher. Four times this season, he's pitched into the seventh inning or beyond and allowed just one earned run, yet received nothing more than a no-decision for his effort. Even if Lester wins each of his five remaining starts, he would finish with just 17 wins. But his value is already recognized. Chicago starter Mark Buehrle, another of the AL's top lefties, believes Lester has earned the right to be considered among the game's best. "He's done enough that he deserves to be ranked right up there," Buehrle said recently. Over the last two seasons, Lester has followed the same path: a slow start, building to a strong finish. In 2008, his season began to turn around when he no-hit the Kansas City Royals in early May, then build off the confidence he earned from that start. He finished with 16 wins and a 3.22 ERA, but after April, it was 2.99. It's been more of the same this season. Lester sputtered in April and May before righting himself with a May 31 outing in Toronto "This year started out, obviously, not the way I wanted to," said Lester, "but it's about getting into a rhythm. I kept saying early on that I needed to string a few starts together. I've been able to do that since the end of May on. Once you get that little bit of rhythm, you just stop worrying about pitching bad or pitching good. You just show up every five days and know that you're going to battle." Lester opened the playoffs for the Red Sox last year, somewhat by default. Beckett pulled an oblique muscle on the final day of the regular season, forcing the club to scramble its pitching plans and open the Division Series with the lefty. He didn't disappoint, allowing just one unearned run in seven innings against the Angels to put the Red Sox ahead on the road. In the Game 4 clincher, he once again went seven and didn't allow an earned run. In the ALCS, perhaps feeling the effects of a workload that would result in 237 innings, easily the most of his pro career, he dipped some, losing Game 3 with a rough start (four earned runs in 5 2/3 innings) before pitching well (one run over seven innings) in the Red Sox's Game 7 elimination loss to Tampa. Still, in five career postseason starts, Lester sports a 1.95 ERA. Had Beckett continued to pitch as well as he did from May of this season into mid-August, the choice for No. 1 starter in the postseason would be obvious. But now, the argument in favor of Lester is no less compelling.
Tagged: Red Sox, Angels, White Sox, Royals, Marlins, Mark Buehrle, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester

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