Quality

Quality.

Retail customers automatically expect it in exchange for their money, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get it. Sometimes, the item they pay for turns out to be a piece of junk. Others, it seems, they’ve lucked upon a hidden gem.

Like the fans who got more than they bargained for in the form of Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester this October.

The phrase “quality pitching” isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when people talk about the Red Sox. Up until recently, I wholeheartedly admit that it was a nonexistent thought in mine.

Truth be told, I’m quite spoiled in the pitching department. I cut my teeth on a staff of aces that, in my not-so-humble opinion, had no parallel in the 1990s and early 2000s. Of course, by now you have to know I mean the Atlanta Braves’ former formidable starting rotation of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery and, later on, Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood, Denny Neagle and the lesser-known Damian Moss.

And yet, with all that talent and all those years of domination on the mound, they only managed one World Series victory in five appearances (’91, ’92, ’95, ’96 and ’99). It came against the Cleveland Indians in 1995, and even then, winning the championship seemed more of a relief than anything else. A 232-day strike from 1994-95 took the joy out of it for me, especially when the entire ’94 postseason became a casualty of the baseball stoppage.

Fans were understandably pissed off and disenchanted with the game – myself included – but it wasn’t pitching that eventually made us fall in love with baseball all over again. It was, instead, an unlikely home-run chase between larger-than-life sluggers Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs during the 1998 season.

All of a sudden, EVERYONE was watching Major League Baseball. Both men surpassed the record of 61 set by the – and I have to preface this with my usual UGH – New York Yankees’ Roger Maris in 1961. Nothing personal against Maris, mind you, just his team. Anyway, McGwire surpassed Maris’ mark first and eventually edged out Sosa 70-66. Three years later, the overwhelmingly hated Barry Bonds hit 73. That record, such as it is, still stands.

We all know what happened afterward.

All three names came up in the much-publicized scandal involving steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in the ensuing years, thus making a mockery out of us fans yet again. You know the old adage: If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is, and it left us feeling dirty, cheated, foolish for buying into something that wasn’t anything even remotely resembling what we thought we were getting. We were just like the figurative customer who shells out wads of dough for a Lamborghini only to receive a Yugo.

We were robbed.

I still cry Lemon Law for those wasted seasons we’ll never get back again. But many great feats have taken the sting out of them in the years since, which brings me back to Lester and the manner in which he’s outperformed his foes from across the hill.

Lester quietly has done what the other Red Sox starting pitchers have not in this year’s World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals: Win. I’m not knocking the starting rotation, but we all know it hasn’t exactly been stellar every single night. The same goes for a few of the guys in the bullpen. Shit happens, and that’s putting it about as nicely as I can.

Boston is up 3-2 in the Fall Classic and has Lester to thank for two of those victories heading into Game 6 on Wednesday at Fenway Park. Teammate and reliever Felix Doubront is credited with the other, thanks, in large part, to a three-run homer by Jonny Gomes that broke a 1-all tie en route to the 4-2 win in Game 4.

The left-handed Lester has provided his customers – whoops, opposition – a disservice in the postseason. And that sits just fine with his teammates and fans, who, I think it’s safe to say, are quite satisfied with his collective performance.

In his 15 1/3 innings pitched in the Fall Classic, he has scattered a mere nine hits and one earned run – a solo homer by the Cardinals’ Matt Holliday in Game 5 – for a 0.59 ERA while striking out 15. Monday night, he allowed only four hits and the one run, fanning seven in 7 2/3 innings to clinch a 3-1 win. Back in Game 1, he also went the same distance, giving up five hits while whiffing eight and walking one in the 8-1 rout of St. Louis.

He has posted a 4-1 record in his five starts during the playoffs, his only loss a tough 1-0 decision against the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. His overall postseason ERA is 1.56 with 29 strikeouts and 25 hits allowed in 34 2/3 innings. Not an easy feat, considering the competition.

Hopefully, John Lackey will feed off of Lester’s latest stellar Series start and help bring another title back to Beantown with some much-needed “quality time” of his own on the pitcher’s mound. Because, as we’ve learned in the past, quantity – let’s just call it my code word for using too many pitchers – doesn’t always get the job done.

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