ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Ask John Farrell if Jon Lester is injured.
“He’s absolutely fine physically,” Farrell said.
Ask pitching coach Juan Nieves.
“He’s 100 percent. Jon told me he’s never felt better,” Nieves said.
“I feel great and I’ve felt great physically all year. [Tuesday night] was probably the best I’ve felt physically,” he said.
So the manager, pitching coach and pitcher are all on record saying there’s nothing physically wrong with Lester, who walked seven batters, allowed eight hits and seven runs in clearly one of the worst outings of his career in Tuesday’s 8-3 loss to Tampa Bay.
His velocity has remained steady all season according to Sox velocity charts. He’s throwing 94 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball, which is in line with what he’s thrown the past two years.
Over his last five starts, Lester has pitched 30 innings, allowing 38 hits, six home runs, and 18 walks. He’s 0-3 with a 6.90 ERA during that time.
Both Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves met independently with Lester.
Farrell said he spoke to Lester about “getting back to some basics and re-establishing what his strengths are. That is his four-seam fastball to his glove side. That’s not to say that every pitch is in that location. But that establishes release point in the event that he needs to go to that area to get back into a count. It has an effect on all the pitches that he throws.”
Lester’s take on what’s gone wrong?
“It’s a matter of making adjustments and executing pitches. I know I’ve said that over and over and you’re probably sick of me saying it. But bottom line, that’s what it comes down to,” he said.
And so he went back to the drawing board Wednesday. He actually began the process of review after reporters and teammates had left the clubhouse Tuesday. He wanted to stay behind and watch the disastrous outing on video.
He was just as perturbed with it then as he was when he was live. He saw what he was doing wrong, shaking his head, muttering under his breath just as Red Sox fans everywhere muttered aloud. Lester was advertised as the ace of the staff.
Maybe that’s not the case right now with his teammate Clay Buchholz at 9-0. But Lester knows what comes with the territory. He knows he’ll be under scrutiny and criticism will come his way if he’s not absolutely 100 percent on the money, especially against an important AL East opponent.
“When the manager gives you that Opening Day nod, you can’t run away from it. You embrace it. For the most part I’ve done that through my career. I don’t run from it or anything. I know I was horrible. I know when I’m pitching badly better than anyone. At times it gets tough. At times I think it’s also healthy. Having people watch what I do and comment, that doesn’t make me complacent. That makes me want to work harder to make sure I can correct the situation. I’m gonna go out there tomorrow and start working on it,” Lester said.
When he looked at the video, what did he see?
“I saw a lot of balls that flattened out in the zone. Balls that weren’t in the zone. I never gave my changeup a chance to play in the zone. Same thing with my curve. It would either pop out or I’d spike it and cut it off. It’s mechanical. We’ll sit down and iron some things out,” he said.
The core checklist, though was intact. “Standing tall” on the mound. The downward plane of movement. He did all that.
“Yeah, that part was good,” Lester said. “Maybe I’m not getting my hand up on time. Maybe I felt so good, I was throwing too hard. Overthrowing. Maybe I was flying open a little bit, trying to make the ball cut and break instead of just getting my hand on a good plane. Sometimes you try to make a good breaking ball and you spike it or it pops out of your hand.
“That’s the fun part of pitching. Not every night you’re locked in. Sometimes it’s ‘I don’t have my changeup, so let me do this with a fastball and get the hitter out this way. You just figure out ways to get through it.
“And then you have a night like last night when you want to go out and shoot yourself because all the changes you try to make just don’t work.”
It’s all about game plan, too. The Sox go in with a specific one, but Lester points out, they often have to make in-game adjustments. They have to change the pattern they’ve established to fool the hitters.
“[Tuesday] night we were trying to slow these guys down. [The Rays] are swinging the bats well right now. The only thing they’re hitting is fastball in predictable fastball counts. So we’re trying to slow them down. That was our game plan. When we faced them in Boston we pounded them in and they were turning on everything and so we had to throw changeups. We had to feel them out. Sometimes I get hard-headed and tell myself. ‘I don’t care, I’m going to keep going there.’ That’s why I can give up two or three runs and then I make the adjustments and I’m not so hard-headed,” Lester said.
Yet when he saw the linescore included seven walks, he was disturbed.
“It was disappointing. That’s not me,” he said.
As down as he appeared, he was realistic and took a mature view of the situation.
“You can’t live and die by each start,” he said. “I felt in the starts leading up to that . . . I felt for the most part I liked the way I was throwing. Last night was different, but you get away from it as far as you can.”
And the strange part was he warmed up like he was going to throw a no-hitter.
“It happens more than you think,” said Lester about warming up fine and pitching lousy. “Like my no-hitter. I threw three balls to the backstop. [Jason Varitek] didn’t even get a glove on it. Then there are other times you’re so bad you say ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna do it’ and you pitch seven shutout innings. The older you get, the more you realize the warm-up doesn’t matter.”
But he knows what does matter.
The Opening Day starter, the ace, says forget about the injury theory. He’s fine.
He says he’s not concerned. He’ll work it out and lose this hiccup as quickly as his next glass of water.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.