BOSTON — Roger Clemens still stands alone as the only major league pitcher to go 20-1 to start a season.
And the former Red Sox great can thank current Sox lefty Jon Lester and third baseman Will Middlebrooks for keeping it that way. They also were responsible for giving Boston an important September win.
With Max Scherzer making his second attempt to improve his record to 20-1, Lester pitched seven strong innings and Middlebrooks drilled a two-run single in the sixth to lead the Red Sox to a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday in the middle game of a three-game series that could be a postseason preview.
“We recognize the time of the year, who we’re going up against — is this the potential of seeing somebody further on down the road?” Boston manager John Farrell said after the playoff-type win, which came a night after a 3-0 Detroit victory. “And we felt like we needed to put together a solid game here tonight and he did it.”
Clemens went 20-1 (and didn’t win the Cy Young Award) to start his 2001 season. Scherzer, taken off the hook by his teammates last week against the Oakland Athletics, is now 19-2 (8-1 on the road) after getting outpitched by Lester (13-8).
For Lester, who has struggled at times this season, this continued a strong run that followed the All-Star Game. He has a 2.59 ERA in his last 10 starts and has re-established himself as the staff’s No. 1.
He also has done what Clemens always took pride in doing: winning after a team loss. Lester is 9-1 with a 2.68 ERA this season after Boston losses, the team going 11-2 in those starts.
“He’s been our stopper all year, when you consider the number of games he’s pitched after a loss,” said Farrell.
The win, Boston’s fourth in the last five games and eighth in the last 10, allowed the Red Sox to maintain the best overall record in the American League, 11/2 games ahead of the Tigers.
Lester scattered eight hits, struck out nine and didn’t walk anyone in winning for the third time in his last four starts. He got Miguel Cabrera, who returned from a three-game absence (abdomen injury) to ground out with the bases loaded in the fifth inning, with the Tigers ahead 1-0.
“Obviously, I don’t want to be in that situation with him up, but really the biggest thing right there is not giving up four (runs),” Lester said. “Best hitter on the planet, you’re trying to really minimize damage.”
Three relievers worked the eighth, and Koji Uehara continued his marvelous run with a perfect ninth (nine pitches, two strikeouts).
Uehara, who earned his 17th save, has made 22 straight scoreless appearances, working 25 straight scoreless innings. He has retired 21 straight batters.
“It’s a very calming inning, like I said yesterday,” Farrell said.
Scherzer, who had been getting great run support (the Tigers scored in double figures in five of his wins, including a win over Boston), was bidding for his first career complete game but was lifted in the eighth inning.
“Unfortunately I made one mistake (to Middlebrooks) and it cost us,” Scherzer said.
Added manager Jim Leyland: “He pitched terrific. Early on I thought he was as sharp as he’s been all year.”
Middlebrooks, who returned from the minors last month, delivered his first RBIs in the last nine games in which he had a plate appearance. The hit came in the bottom of the same inning that saw him boot a ball at third base.
“Normally I go up there and look for a heater but in that situation, with guys in scoring position I figured he’d throw the off-speed,” he said. “I looked for it and I got it.”
Former Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias doubled in a run in the second inning, but the Red Sox cut a second run down at the plate. Then, in the fifth, with one out, Jonny Gomes, deprived of a hit down the left field line by a poor call by umpire Eric Cooper, singled on the next pitch. He rode to third on Stephen Drew’s long ground rule double (which would have scored a run if it had stayed in play). It didn’t matter — after Scherzer blew away David Ross, Middlebrooks ripped his two-run single.
NOTES: It was the fourth time in 35 games the Red Sox won by scoring two runs or less, the first since July 3. … Scherzer was clubbed for six runs (five earned) and eight hits in five innings against Oakland last week, but his teammates took him off the hook with a four-run rally in the ninth. … CF Jacoby Ellsbury (sore hand) and C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (back) were out of the Boston lineup and it looks like Saltalamacchia will be out a few days. … The Tigers recalled RHPs Jeremy Bonderman and Jose Alvarez and C Bryan Holaday from Toledo. … Detroit RHP Rick Porcello faces RHP Ryan Dempster in the series finale. It could be Dempster’s final start. RHP Clay Buchholz (shoulder, neck) will make his third and final rehab start for Pawtucket Thursday night, and he appears to be on target to return to the rotation next Tuesday at Tampa Bay.