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Jon Lester pushes Red Sox within one win of Fenway party

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

ST. LOUIS – Halfway across the country, the preparations for a party nearly a century in the making started in earnest. Since 1918, when Babe Ruth was a star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and there was no such thing as a curse or Bucky Dent or Sweet Caroline, the city has not seen a baseball championship won in its limits. Even on Sept. 11, 1918, when the Red Sox did shunt aside the Chicago Cubs and capture the World Series, only 15,238 showed up at Fenway Park to bear witness. Something far more important with a capital-W World – a war – was on people's minds.

Today in Boston, all anyone can think about is their Sox. They won again Monday night, a 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the World Series at Busch Stadium that prefaces the two most diametrically opposed scenarios possible: unbridled, mass joy at getting to celebrate this franchise's third championship in a decade around the Fens and Kenmore Square and telescoping out to all of New England, or the sort of devastation that defined the Red Sox for 86 years, disappointment and anger and regret on par with 1946 and 1967 and 1975 and 1986, all seven-game World Series losses. The Red Sox seem to know no other way.

[Photos: World Series Game 5 highlights]

For now, they hew tightly to the former, full of good vibes and great memories of a team that has two cracks at turning the 69-win calamity of 2012 into the championship run of 2013. The cheapest ticket to Game 6 on StubHub runs $773.65 for standing room only, and if it gets to a Game 7, one particular pair of seats will cost two lucky fans a cool $53,633.40. Call it a century's worth of compound interest on emotion.

And that's how Boston feels about this group that embraced the city – "Our [bleeping] city!" David Ortiz so memorably said – after the horror of the marathon bombing: There is a deep sentimental component, one that with another win could place these Red Sox up there with the beloved '04 team that ended the 86-year drought. This, too, is an easy group to love, larded with personalities, overrun with facial hair, defined by talent and, on Monday, buoyed by one of the only holdovers from Boston's last title in 2007.

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Jon Lester threw 7 2/3 strong innings in the Red Sox's Game 5 victory. (AP)

Back then, Jon Lester was a 23-year-old who threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings in the World Series-clinching win only nine months after powering through six chemotherapy treatments that eradicated non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Now, he is Boston's unquestioned ace, the sort of pitcher who struts into a pivotal World Series game against Cardinals stalwart Adam Wainwright and doesn't just match him pitch for pitch but outduels him – again. For the second straight outing, Lester threw 7 2/3 innings, the final five outs with a lower back that was barking louder and louder, before yielding to Koji Uehara for the last four batters and a three-games-to-two series lead.

The palpable sense of strangeness that permeated Busch Stadium on Saturday and Sunday finally relented Monday. There was no crazy ending. No weird play. Nary an obstruction call. Rarely even a pick-off attempt. The closest thing to chaos materialized out of thin air in the seventh inning, when a fan folded a placard into a paper airplane and floated it onto the field near Lester. He picked it up, handed it to a batboy and went back about his business, all fastballs and cutters and curveballs, sharp as a scythe, his pitches boring in on hitters and his countenance uncommonly boring, too, far more subdued than the typically fiery Lester, perhaps because he, as much as any Red Sox, understood the stakes.

"I just really try not to screw it up," Lester said.

Considering who surrounded him on stage – the ebullient David Ross and the damn-I'm-good-and-I-know-it David Ortiz – the self-deprecation played well. By that point, everyone had seen Lester grimace through his final pitches, almost certainly the last ones of his season, his back tightening thanks to 34 2/3 innings of postseason work on top of a career-high 213 1/3 during the regular season. He racked up outs nevertheless, aware that an ice pack awaited him in the clubhouse along with text messages that made him smile as he sat there in shorts and camouflage Crocs.

Around him, Lester's teammates lavished him with praise, making sure to contrast his mess of a 2012 season (9-14, career-worst 4.82 ERA) with the Lester whose 1.56 ERA this postseason would land him atop the MVP conversation if not for Ortiz's all-time incredible, 11-for-14-with-a-2.017-OPS World Series. Without Big Papi, the Red Sox might not be able to score. Then again, without Lester, they're searching for a pair of brilliant 7 2/3-inning starts.

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"He's our backbone," Ross said. "He's our horse when he's out there. We expect a lot out of him. He's pitching like the ace he is."

When Lester did give up a run on Matt Holliday's monster fourth-inning home run that tied the game 1-1, it surprised Boston, which had grown so used to Lester filling every inning with zeroes that it started to take for granted the sort of fallibility, oh, pretty much every other pitcher this postseason has shown. Then again, the way he moved his pitches inside and out, up and down, signaled the sort of Lester who could mow through a Cardinals lineup that, minus Holliday, has gone 146 at-bats this series without a home run. In particular, Lester's cutter – a pitch with which he fell in love and lost velocity before minimizing its use as the season wore on – devastated a St. Louis lineup that already needed help from Boston's error-prone fielders to plate the winning runs in Games 2 and 3.

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Koji Uehara (right) closed out the Red Sox's victory for the second straight game. (AP)

"When he has that thing working," Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter said, "it's as tough of an at-bat as you'll take."

Tough at-bats were everywhere with Lester, including his own. In the top of the seventh, with runners on second and third base after Ross' go-ahead ground-rule double, Boston manager John Farrell let Lester bat despite going 0 for his career, which spanned 35 at-bats. Never, Farrell said, did it cross his mind to pinch hit for Lester, not with him at just 69 pitches, not with him throwing so well. Lester grounded out, only to see Jacoby Ellsbury feather a single into center field to stretch the lead to 3-1.

Lester limped off the field with two outs in the eighth, happy to yield to Uehara for the final four outs. He faced pain and pressure and kicked their ass like he did cancer seven years ago and, best of all, he sent Boston home for a Game 6 that will turn Fenway Park into a ceaseless ball of energy.

Rookie Michael Wacha gets to navigate it in Game 6 against John Lackey, and Joe Kelly would tangle with it in Game 7 against Jake Peavy or Felix Doubront or whatever sort of pitching staff Farrell would cobble together. At that point, all hands are on deck, perhaps even Lester, if his back loosens up and the season comes down to a Halloween-night showdown.

It's almost impossible for anything to resonate in Boston like 2004, when generations of Red Sox fans vowed they could die in peace. They knew they were lying. Winning is addictive. The beast was fed in 2007, and they want more in 2013, especially knowing that if they win the World Series this year, it cannot happen anywhere other than Fenway Park.

"And there is something extra special about that," Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow said. "To win a deciding game at home is tremendous, especially when one considers what this city has gone through."

So much. And an eighth championship for the Red Sox would seem an especially poetic capper to a season with such a lyrical lilt. The idea of fate in sports is silly and far-fetched and overwrought, sure, but it's fair to say that if the Red Sox win this thing, doing so in Boston is proper.

It's been 95 years. They're more than ready.

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