In Scott Kazmir and Jon Lester, Tampa Bay and Boston possess two of the top young left-handed pitchers in baseball. It’s little coincidence that the Rays and Red Sox have represented the American League in the last two World Series.
The southpaws go toe-to-toe Wednesday night in Fenway Park as the AL East rivals continue their season-opening three-game set.
Kazmir and Lester were born 17 days apart in January 1984, and are both listed at 190 pounds. The similarities don’t end there.
After winning the World Series clincher for Boston in 2007, Lester was terrific in 2008 - his first full season since recovering from lymphoma - going 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA to help the Red Sox compensate for an injury-plagued season from ace Josh Beckett, win the wild card and come within one game of a second straight AL pennant.
Lester is 27-8 in his career - a .771 winning percentage which is the highest of any pitcher since 1900 with at least 25 decisions.
Lester and the Red Sox lost in the AL championship series to the Rays and their rotation fronted by Kazmir, who led Tampa Bay in ERA for the fourth straight year, finishing 12-8 with a 3.49 ERA despite missing the season’s first month with a strained throwing elbow.
He helped the formerly moribund Rays engineer one of the most remarkable turnarounds in major league history, improving by 31 games and going from worst-to-first in the East before finally losing the World Series to Philadelphia in five games.
Though the Rays return the same young nucleus that thrived in 2008, Kazmir realizes playing in the same division as the Red Sox and Yankees poses a stiff challenge.
“I feel like we have to be better than we were last year,” he told the Rays’ official Web site. “And we’re capable of doing it. We know we can do it.”
He also indicated Tampa Bay wants to show its banner year was no fluke.
“Because that’s what you hear all the time,” Kazmir said. “We still have something to prove over here.”
They proved little in Tuesday’s opener, which was delayed by one day due to rain. Beckett struck out 10 in seven innings of two-hit ball as Boston won 5-3.
“A healthy Beckett,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “We’ve got a long way to go. But watching the way he’s throwing is big. We want to lean on him.”
Reigning AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and Jason Varitek homered, and every Boston starter except leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury had at least one hit. Pedroia has a good chance for another strong game Wednesday, as he’s 16-for-31 (.516) in his career against Kazmir including postseason.
Kazmir is 6-7 with a 3.68 ERA in 23 career starts versus the Red Sox including postseason, but 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA in his last seven outings against them including a pair of starts without a decision in the ALCS.
Lester is 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA in seven regular-season starts versus Tampa Bay, but lost both of his starts against the Rays in the ALCS while posting a 4.97 ERA.
Evan Longoria, who drove in two runs for the Rays in the opener, is 4-for-11 (.364) with a homer against Lester including postseason. Left fielder Carl Crawford added an RBI double Tuesday, but is 3-for-20 (.150) with eight strikeouts versus Lester.