Two minutes and four pitches into yesterday’s game, Jon Lester had already plowed through the first three batters of the Tampa Bay order. It was a prompt dispatching of the Rays in the first inning, and it seemed to forecast yet another dream-crushing start from the lefty, who would lead the Sox to the World Series.
Then came the passed ball, and the first run. Then came the blasts, and the unraveling of the third inning. It came swiftly, as the Rays went from dominated to dominant, and the Red Sox left Game 3 to the visitors from St. Petersburg, Fla., in a 9-1 car wreck at Fenway Park. They were not right, not in any way. Not right on the mound. Not right in the batter’s box. Not right in the stands.
“We’ve been here before,” Dustin Pedroia said. “We’ve got to come out and play better baseball.
“There’s no excuses, obviously. They came out and kicked our butt tonight. It was 9-1, or whatever it ended up. They played great, we didn’t. That was the bottom line of the game.
“There’s no, `Oh we should have done this.’ No, none of that. It was a straight-up [butt] kicking, and we’ve got to play better.”
Save for the bombs hit by the Rays, it was a quiet day at the park, a sedate crowd of 38,031 more in line with a Sunday day game in April than Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. And though the atmosphere was that way from the start, by the end of the third, there was cause to be subdued, and that was broken only rarely - including boos for the Captain on a popup in the fourth - as the Rays hit four home runs.
The loss left the Red Sox down, two games to one, in the series, as they lost the home-field advantage gained by winning a game over the weekend at Tropicana Field. It was due in part to a shaky Lester, who was touched in the third inning for a three-run blast by B.J. Upton over the Monster and onto the street and a follow-up solo shot by Evan Longoria.
“B.J. turned on a ball left over the plate,” Lester said. “I hung a cutter to Longoria. You do stuff like that to good hitters, they’re supposed to do what they did.
“At times I was effective with everything. I didn’t execute, for the most part, two pitches, and they hurt me. With this team you can’t have big innings like that.”
That makes seven home runs off Red Sox pitching in the last two games.
But it was not entirely Lester. There were other factors, like the strikingly silent bats of Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz and Jason Varitek. Neither the leadoff man, nor the designated hitter, nor the catcher have a hit in the ALCS.
No, none of them have a hit, though they have combined for a handful of walks. But those three hitters have combined to go a startling 0 for 34 in this series. So while it was clear that Lester wasn’t quite the Lester that everyone has come to expect in this postseason, the offense didn’t exactly back him up. Ortiz remained silent after the game, too, when he declined to speak to the media.
“We live and die by scoring runs,” Jason Bay said. “That’s a big part of our game. Right now we’re not getting it done.”
And that was even after the Sox had an eight-run outburst in Game 2 at Tropicana Field, a game they eventually lost.
Part of yesterday’s struggles, obviously, was Matt Garza, the Tampa Bay starter whose 97-mile-per-hour fastballs left Varitek looking slow, and whose 94-mile-per-hour two-seamer left Ortiz squawking at a called third strike. Part of it, though, was also a leadoff hitter who hasn’t gotten on base in his last 20 at-bats.
“I don’t think it was pressing,” manager Terry Francona said. “I think some of that was Garza’s fastball. He was throwing his fastball at times by us, and that breaking ball at times that you had to respect. So that was a tough combination for us, I think, one we couldn’t overcome.”
Still, things were looking good early. Even after allowing a run in the second inning courtesy of a passed ball by Varitek and an RBI ground out by Dioner Navarro, the Sox had two on and one out for Varitek in their half. But he struck out looking at one of those 97-m.p.h. fastballs, and Alex Cora flied to center field.
Then came the third, which nearly pushed the Sox out of it. The finishing touches came later.
The crowd woke up, for a moment, on an eighth-inning play that might have woken up Varitek just as much. Second baseman Pedroia picked up a ball off the bat of Navarro, and fired immediately to Varitek at home plate, as Carl Crawford came barreling in. Crawford knocked Varitek over, the catcher’s mask flying off as the left fielder steamed in, but he got the out.
It only delayed the inevitable, a three-run home run from Rocco Baldelli (who brought his bat, if not his arm) and a solo shot by Carlos Pena off Paul Byrd finishing the scoring.
“Somebody was going to be down, 2-1,” said Mark Kotsay, who had two of the Sox’ seven hits. “This team has got a lot of character. I don’t think anybody in here is in a panic mode or worried. We’re at home. We’ll come out tomorrow and play hard and hopefully tie this back up.”
Even so, yesterday’s game was one that seemed as close to a must-win as a Game 3 in a split series can, and the Sox - and their newly crowned ace - fell flat. Because of Lester’s previous playoff performance and because of the uncertainty of an extremely well-rested Tim Wakefield, not to mention the inconsistencies of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett, Lester’s starts had become seemingly assured.
Not yesterday. So the games take on more pressure, the at-bats take on more pressure, the series takes on more pressure, as the Sox try to come back to win their third World Series in five years.
“The only thing that changes is that we’ve got to fly back to Florida,” Cora said. “They got the home-field advantage again, they worked so hard for it. Now we just battle and do our thing.”