What’s up with smilin’ Jon Lester?
Other than another curious and abysmal performance by the Red Sox lefthander, Tuesday was a relatively quiet night at Fenway. Nobody went on the disabled list. Nobody said the clubhouse was “toxic,” nor was there any talk about a “disconnect” between Bobby Valentine and his warriors. Bill James was safely locked away in a Kansas basement with no telephone privileges, and no letters were released to Sox season ticket-holders.
But our one takeaway from the Red Sox’ 7-5 loss to the White Sox is that Lester still stinks and nobody knows why.
The sour southpaw was lit up for six runs in only four innings against the White Sox. He surrendered seven hits and walked three, throwing a whopping 91 pitches over four frames. He gave up two runs in the first (this is considered a good first inning for a Sox starter these days), watched his teammates rally to tie the game in the bottom of the inning, then spit up another run in the second, and threw a 3-and-2 cookie to old friend Kevin Youkilis in the fourth that resulted in a three-run Monster Seat bomb and another worthless evening in the Back Bay.
Say this about Lester: He does not make excuses. Nor does he have any answers.
“Frustrating year, frustrating night,’’ he said after the game. “It just keeps adding on. I’m getting tired of it. I try to make adjustments. I’m not getting results. A loss is a loss. I feel fine, I’ve just got to do a better job.’’
Lester is supposed to be the Red Sox ace. He is 28, in his athletic prime. He’s been the Opening Day starter in each of the last two seasons. He is a two-time All-Star. He won 16, 15, 19, and 15 games respectively, in the last four seasons. He has thrown a no-hitter and won the clinching game of the World Series. He beat cancer, has a beautiful wife and son, and does nifty truck commercials. And yet every time he goes to the mound, he looks like somebody just ran over his dog in a Ford pickup. Lester in 2012 carries himself like Nomar Garciaparra in 2004. He looks like a guy who just hates being here. There was sports-talk radio babble about trading Lester at the All-Star break. Now we wonder. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea.
After the unspeakable horrors of last September, we find ourselves in the same sad situation with Lester and his running mate, Josh Beckett. The two guys who let the team down in the final month of 2011 (each won only once in the 7-20 disaster) have picked up where they left off. The Sox are 13-21 in games started by the men who are supposed to be Boston’s best two pitchers.
Lester is 5-7 with a 4.80 ERA. He is 2-5 with a 6.29 ERA in 11 starts at Fenway. This makes him one of the worst pitchers in baseball in his home ballpark. This makes him a meatball artist.
What gives? Lester has been telling us that he feels OK. He says he’s making good pitches. But his results continue to be totally unacceptable.
“I feel fine, mechanically,’’ he said. “I feel fine with the process. But when the ball leaves my hand, it’s not where it needs to be.’’
He is throwing too many pitches. He is trying to strike everybody out instead of pitching to contact. He unravels when he gets squeezed by the umpire.
It is strange. Jon Lester is simply too good to be this bad.
The home run pitch to Youkilis?
“Bad location, bad spot, bad time,’’ said Lester.
“I’ve been busting my ass. I don’t think there’s anything else I can work on. I let the team down. I’ve got to pick them up and I haven’t been doing that all year. I’ve got to move on to when I pitch next and try to get the ball down.’’
Lester’s latest stink bomb capped an unsatisfactory day/night at Fenway.
The Sox started off the day with the news that David Ortiz is going to be wearing a boot for at least a week. The Sox say Ortiz has no tear in his right Achilles’, but Big Papi said he’s going for a second opinion. He was somber. There was a sense that this might be worse than what they are saying. In any event, Valentine again is managing a 24-man team for a bunch of games. It seems like Valentine has played with a short bench all season long.
“We have weathered the storm,’’ said Valentine. “I just deal as though someone came out of the game in the first inning and we’ve lost them for the rest of the game.’’
Fine. But it limits his options in the late innings. Boston’s reluctance to disable Dustin Pedroia created the short bench earlier in the season. Now it’s going to be a small squad because they don’t want to put Papi on the shelf for 15 days.
Ortiz hurt himself stepping on second base when Adrian Gonzalez hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning Monday night. This is the baseball equivalent of breaking your toe on the way to the bathroom.
“I didn’t hear a pop,’’ said Ortiz. “It’s crazy. One guy comes off [the disabled list] another goes in. I got to wait. There’s not too much I can do about it.’’
I don’t know about you, but I’m still glad the Sox gave away Youkilis for two bags of baseballs and agreed to pay his salary for the rest of the season. Youk would have been useless when Will Middlebrooks sat out seven straight games, and now that Big Papi is gone, Youk (.260) could not possibly help — right? Good thing we got Brent Lillibridge (.125), who went 2 for 16 before he was effectively released Monday. Dumping unhappy Youk certainly was a deal that just had to be made.
On the bright side, Tuesday’s Fenway public address announcer-du-jour was none other than Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, a Red Sox yahoo from way back. Like all good Sox fans, King knows that the playoffs are realistic for this star-crossed team. In 2012 you can go 46-45 and be considered a serious playoff contender. Entering Tuesday night, the American League had 11 teams with records of .500 or better.
That’s great. But the Red Sox aren’t going anywhere if Jon Lester continues to pitch like this.
Injuries have plagued the 2012 Sox. They are truly operating under a dark star. But there is no excuse for Lester. This is sheer underperformance. And it is killing Boston’s baseball summer.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.