BOSTON -- From Opening Day starter to staff goat to staff ace, the unpredictable transition has never looked so seamless.
Jon Lester has made one wild turnaround.
With the calendar flipped to September and the postseason lurking around the corner, Lester submitted one of his most impressive performances of the season.
Lester threw seven innings of one-run ball against the streaking Tigers, setting a season high with nine strikeouts, and the Red Sox squeezed a pair of runs out of Max Scherzer to serve him just his second loss of the season in a 2-1 win on Tuesday night.
"I think everybody in our dugout feels that when he goes to the mound -- and that can be said for [John] Lackey, that's not to slight anybody -- but Jon has stepped up in those games when we needed to get back on the winning track," said manager John Farrell.
With the win, the Red Sox remain 5 1/2 games ahead of the Rays in the American League East.
Just more than a month after his ERA was 4.52, Lester has now gone six straight games in which he's allowed three earned runs or fewer -- a streak he's only beaten once, a nine-game stretch of brilliance in 2009.
Over the last six games, the 29-year-old lefty has gone from a tired former ace to the team's No. 1 starter. He's posted a 1.71 ERA and hasn't allowed a home run. Held homerless during that stretch? The three most potent long-ball-hitting teams in the Majors (the Orioles, Tigers and Blue Jays).
But the Tigers didn't make it easy on him on Tuesday. He only worked three one-two-three innings, allowed eight hits -- including a hard-driven double from former Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias that drove in the Tigers' only run -- and stranded seven runners.
But his curveball and cutter were dancing with such grace that the Tigers' mashing pair of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder each struck out swinging on balls that appeared to be out of the strike zone.
Farrell called Lester's cutter "back to [what] it was … a couple of years ago."
"I'm in a better spot right now as far as going down the mound," Lester said, "which puts me in a better position for that pitch. I think maybe taking a break from it for a little bit helped me, trying not to pound my head against the wall with it. It's been good the last three, four, five starts, so, keep grinding it out."
Cabrera finished 0-for-4, including a key groundout with the bases loaded in the fifth inning.
"He was totally different than the first time we faced him," said Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter. "He was stronger. He was the Jon Lester of old."
Scherzer was spinning his magic equally, if not more effectively, than Lester. The Tigers' ace entered the game 19-1 and got through the first inning with three straight swinging strikeouts. He had Shane Victorino so off balance that Victorino decided to switch over and hit from the left side in his fourth at-bat. But that didn't work either, and Victorino finished 0-for-4.
Scherzer allowed just five hits; his only mistake was that three came in the same inning.
"Max certainly pitched good enough to win tonight," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "We just didn't win."
Jonny Gomes started the rally with a one-out single in the fifth. Stephen Drew then roped a laser to right-center, but the ball bounced over the outfield wall and into the stands for a ground-rule double, forcing Gomes to head back to third base.
From snake-bitten to stinging with poison, Will Middlebrooks quickly erased the stroke of bad luck.
After David Ross struck out swinging, Middlebrooks -- whose error on a ground ball forced Lester into some trouble the previous inning -- smacked a single up the middle to score two.
That was all the Red Sox would need to beat the Tigers for just the second time in six tries this season.
"[Scherzer] likes to start me out off-speed," Middlebrooks said. "Normally I go up there, look for a heater. But in that situation, guys in scoring position, I figured he'd throw the off-speed. I looked for it, and I got it."
Farrell was crafty with his bullpen, using Brandon Workman, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa for one out each in the eighth inning before Koji Uehara extended his scoreless-innings streak to 25 in picking up his 17th save of the season.
"That was a lot of fun tonight," said catcher David Ross. "One, the crowd, playing [the Tigers], it had a little playoff atmosphere, and the crowd was really into it. Big hits. The guys were excited. That atmosphere and what the pitchers were doing, I got done with that game, and that was a lot of fun to call."