BOSTON — Extra rest helped Jon Lester slow down the Tampa Bay surge that nearly knocked Boston out of first place.
After his start was pushed back two days, Lester matched his season high with eight strikeouts Tuesday night, and overcame homers by Wil Myers and Evan Longoria as the Red Sox won 6-2 to move 1½ games ahead of the Rays in the AL East.
This game was more important than others for Lester, who struggled after a sensational first month.
“You never want to diminish any start,” Boston Manager John Farrell said, “but again, where we are in the standings, where they are (and) knowing we’re only still in July, but this was a big game for us.”
The win kept the Red Sox (61-41) atop the division for the 58th straight day and moved them within eight wins of last season’s total.
“Anytime you play somebody in your division, it’s more than just a regular-season game,” Lester said, “whether it be the first part of the year or last part of the year. It’s always big to beat somebody in your division, whether they’re half a game back or 20. It doesn’t matter. If you continually beat the people in your division, you’re going to have a good season.”
Lester (9-6) had been set to make his first start after the All-Star break Sunday. But that was delayed two days to give him nine days of rest.
“He was strong,” Farrell said. “It seems like the added rest did him some good.”
The loss ended the Rays’ six-game winning streak and was just their third in 21 games, a surge that began when they were in fourth place, trailing the Red Sox by seven games.
“We’ve been playing pretty darned good and I am not going to be negative or critical about our group at all. We got outpitched a little bit,” Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon said. “Lester was a strike-thrower.”
Boston is 3-4 since its four-game winning streak.
Lester gave up two runs and seven hits with no walks in 61/3 innings. He is 3-6 with a 5.97 ERA since starting the year 6-0 with a 2.72 ERA. Four Red Sox pitchers combined for 13 strikeouts.
Roberto Hernandez (5-11) allowed three runs in five innings and tied R.A. Dickey for the second-most losses in the AL. But it was the 28th time in Tampa Bay’s last 31 games that a starter gave up three runs or fewer.
“He kept us in the game and gave us a solid chance to win,” Maddon said.
Boston led 3-2 before scoring three runs in the eighth on an RBI single by Stephen Drew and two-run single by Jose Iglesias.
Myers’ fifth homer of the year on the first pitch of the second inning cleared the left-field wall and gave the Rays a 1-0 lead.
“That was pretty cool, especially to be able to hit it over The Monster,” Myers said. “I got a good pitch and just ended up taking advantage of it.”
The Red Sox tied it in the bottom half on an RBI single by Mike Carp.
They went ahead 2-1 in the third on a double steal. Shane Victorino led off with a double and went to third on a flyout by Daniel Nava. Dustin Pedroia was hit by a pitch, then stole second as catcher Jose Molina threw down and Victorino scored.
The Red Sox had left runners at third base in three straight innings before Pedroia gave them a 3-1 lead with a sacrifice fly in the fifth.
The Rays got another leadoff homer off Lester in the sixth when Longoria hit his 21st on the second pitch, cutting the lead to 3-2.
“Those leadoff home runs like that can turn into big innings if you let them,” Lester said. “I was able to settle back down and get some outs after that.”
And the Red Sox remained in first place.
“It was a very big performance” by Lester, Victorino said. “You needed something like that.”
NOTES: Boston is 10-4 against Tampa Bay and clinched the 19-game season series. The last time the Red Sox won the series over the Rays was 2007.