With their starting rotation in a groove, the Philadelphia Phillies are starting to resemble the club that's won the last five NL East titles.
If Jon Lester's performance Saturday night resembles those he's had against Philadelphia in the past, the Phillies' winning streak will be in danger.
The Phillies will go for their seventh straight victory when they continue their series against the visiting Boston Red Sox, but they must overcome Lester to earn it.
Philadelphia (21-19) remains in last place in the East, but is also only one-half game out of third in a division where every team owns a winning record. The Phillies have moved a season-high two games above .500 thanks to their winning streak, which reached six after Friday's 6-4 victory over the Red Sox (18-21) to open this series.
Jonathan Papelbon pitched a scoreless ninth inning against his former team to earn his 12th save in as many chances, but starter Cole Hamels set the tone by striking out nine in seven innings of three-run ball to earn the win. It marked the ninth straight game allowing three or fewer runs for the Philadelphia rotation, which has a 2.09 ERA during the winning streak.
Hamels' job was made easier by his offense, which put four runs on the board in a first inning highlighted by a two-run single by Carlos Ruiz. He finished 2 for 3, improving to 11 for 17 over his last five games.
"Being able to score runs early is huge,'' Hamels said. "It puts a slight cushion on just trying to go out and battle. Even when you do get a ton of runs in the first inning it almost seems it's not enough because they keep pounding away on you and keep battling back.''
Probable Saturday starter Joe Blanton (4-3, 2.96 ERA) contributed to the Phillies' surge Monday, allowing one run over seven innings of a 5-1 victory over Houston to improve to 3-0 with a 2.10 ERA over his last four starts.
The right-hander is 3-3 with a 4.70 ERA in 10 career starts versus Boston, but just 1-3 with a 5.44 ERA in eight outings since the start of 2007. The last time Blanton faced the Red Sox, on June 12, 2010, at Fenway Park, he gave up a career-high 13 hits and matched a career worst with nine runs allowed in four innings of a 10-2 defeat.
While Blanton has had his troubles against the Red Sox, Lester (2-3, 3.71) has been nearly untouchable in this series. The Boston left-hander is 2-0 in three career starts versus the Phillies - all at Citizens Bank Park and all resulting in Red Sox victories. He's limited the Phillies to one run and 10 hits over 21 innings in those outings, including a 5-2 victory last June 30 in which he threw seven innings of two-hit shutout ball.
Lester has had his ups and downs in 2012, but put forth a stellar effort in Monday's 6-1 win over Seattle, throwing an eight-hitter without a walk while striking out six.
"When Jon is out there pitching like that, we feel very good about ourselves,'' Boston manager Bobby Valentine said.
Several Red Sox regulars weren't feeling very good physically after the series opener. David Ortiz - who Valentine has planned to start at first base Saturday - was relegated to pinch-hitting duty Friday due to intestinal issues. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and outfielder Cody Ross both left the game, Saltalamacchia with a lacerated ear suffered on a deflected ball in the seventh inning, and Ross after fouling a ball off his left foot in the eighth.
The status of all three players is uncertain.
Boston has dropped two of three following a five-game winning streak.
- Boston Red Sox
- Jon Lester