By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Boston Red Sox own the best record in the American League and hold a 5 1/2-game lead over the Rays in the American League East. All signs are pointing to the postseason, but one question remains unanswered as the Sox head into the final stretch: Who starts Game 1?

A number of things need to shake out before that decision is made by manager John Farrell, but the man who should be the answer made a strong case on Tuesday night.

Jon Lester stepped to the mound against the Tigers, on a night when the MLB leader in wins opposed him and a night when the MLB leader in batting average and RBIs re-entered the lineup after a few days off. He walked off the mound seven innings later after allowing just one run and striking out nine batters, with his team holding a 2-1 lead that would stick as the final.

Lester not only gave his team a win, but an added dose of confidence.

“Jon was outstanding once again. He’s been our stopper all year, when you consider the number of games he’s pitched after a loss,” Farrell said. “I think everybody in our dugout feels it when he goes to the mound. That’s not to slight anybody [else], but Jon has stepped up in those games when we needed to get back on the winning track, and he’s done just that.”

The crucial moment for Lester and the Red Sox on Tuesday came in the top of the fifth inning. Brayan Pena reached on an error, and Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter hit back-to-back singles, setting up a bases-loaded, two-out situation for Miguel Cabrera. Though he had missed three straight games due to an abdomen injury, he still stepped in as the most imposing hitter in the game. And when Lester fell behind in the count 2-0, Boston held its collective breath, anticipating the worst.

Yet, Lester was able to battle back and induce a harmless grounder to shortstop to get out of the inning.

Jon Lester and Miguel Cabrera (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Jon Lester and Miguel Cabrera (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

“Obviously, I don’t want to be in that situation with him up. But really, the biggest thing right there is just not giving up four. Best hitter on the planet, you’re trying to really minimize damage,” Lester said. “[On] 2-1, I was able to get a cutter up on his hands to get a ground ball. Obviously that doesn’t happen too often with him, but I’ll take it.”

In the bottom of the inning, Will Middlebrooks drove in the two runs on what turned out to be the game-winning hit against Max Scherzer, who entered the night 19-1 with a 2.90 ERA.

“Lester, I mean, he’s lights-out,” Middlebrooks said. “That’s the best we’ve seen him all year as far as hitting his spots and all his pitches working, so it was fun to watch.”

Tuesday’s win — which was helped in a big way by outstanding work from Brandon Workman, Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara out of the bullpen — will only count as one in the standings, and the Red Sox still have plenty of work to do. But it was bigger than that in the sense that it was the biggest game of the season to date, and the lefty who started the season as the No. 1 looked the part.Despite the perceived implications, the 29-year-old said he wasn’t more charged up than normal.”It’s something that I’ve always said. I’ve always worn my emotions on my sleeve. That’s who I am and I’m not gonna change that — good, bad or indifferent,” Lester said. “If I’m happy or confident or feeling good about myself, you’re gonna know.”

Message received.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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