Mike Lowell's homer and Coco Crisp's RBI single in the bottom of the ninth gave Boston a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, only its second win of the year when trailing after eight innings. And Lester was brilliant in his first start at home in nearly a year since being diagnosed with cancer, allowing two hits in seven innings.
Add in Eric Gagne (3-0) striking out the side in the ninth after struggling since being traded from Texas on July 31 and the Red Sox had a five-game lead in the AL East over the New York Yankees, who lost 12-0 to Baltimore.
"It seemed like we hadn't done that in a while," Lowell said. "Especially after they did that to us in Baltimore twice, you kind of want to have that feeling."
It happened six times last year but only one other time this season, on May 13, at home against the Orioles. It happened against them last Friday and Sunday at Baltimore when Gagne gave up leads of 3-2 and 5-1 and left with the games tied.
"I know how to get people out," Gagne said. "I've done it before, so it's nothing new. I've just got to go out there and relax."
Manager Terry Francona never considered abandoning one of the best closers of the decade who has become a setup man.
"He's going to help us. We need him to help us," Francona said, "and if we run away from him, that would be a big mistake."
The Red Sox stuck by Lester through his offseason treatments for lymphoma, which was diagnosed last August. He made 17 minor league starts this year and four for Boston on the road before Tuesday's first at Fenway since Aug. 18.
"Walking in from the bullpen was pretty exciting," he said. "It will be nice just to not have to answer the 'first' questions anymore and just be treated like every other starter."
The dramatic rally finished a game dominated by strong performances by two 23-year-old left-handers, Lester and Scott Kazmir, who allowed four hits in six innings. On Monday, Tampa Bay wasted a solid outing by James Shields in a 3-0 loss in which it managed two hits.
"Those are our horses," designated hitter Jonny Gomes said. "They go out and perform like that, we have to get over the hill and get them some runs. We haven't been able to do that."
The Devil Rays have two runs in their last 30 innings.
"It's frustrating," manager Joe Maddon said, but "it bodes well for the future if you look at Kaz and Shields coming into this ballpark and pitching at the level that they have."
Lowell's homer on a 2-0 pitch with one out saved Lester from his first loss in eight starts and deprived Kazmir of his 10th win. After Reyes struck out Kevin Youkilis for the second out, Varitek hit a ground-rule double to right then raced home on Crisp's sharp single to right.
Lester received several standing ovations -- when he strolled in from the bullpen, when he took the mound for the first inning and when he walked toward the dugout after his final inning.
Lester, 17 days older than Kazmir, walked the first batter he faced, Akinori Iwamura, then retired the next nine. Carl Crawford led off the fourth with a double, advanced on B.J. Upton's single and scored on Carlos Pena's sacrifice fly.
Pena's out began a stretch in which Lester retired his last 12 batters. He threw 97 pitches, 62 for strikes.
Kazmir has allowed one run in his last 25 innings over four starts. He struck out eight and walked three before Gary Glover and Dan Wheeler each pitched a hitless inning and Reyes ended up with his second blown save in 20 chances.
- Of the 24 runs off Reyes, 18 have come on nine homers.
- Crawford has hit safely in 13 of his last 14 games. His double was Tampa Bay's first hit of the game. On Monday, he spoiled Tim Wakefield's no-hit bid by leading off the seventh with a single.
- Dustin Pedroia had his fifth multi-hit outing in six games.
- Boston reliever Brendan Donnelly underwent "Tommy John" reconstructive surgery on his right elbow Tuesday and is expected to miss 12-18 months.