BALTIMORE — The road trip was a mixed bag for the Red Sox, who won two of three against Tampa Bay and dropped three of four to Baltimore. But there’s one glaring issue above the wins and losses — what’s happened to Jon Lester?
He was tattooed for seven runs vs. Tampa Bay and five runs vs. Baltimore Sunday. Someone considered your ace should win both games, but instead he lost two. You can’t escape the fact that Lester’s pitching has deteriorated, and, as hard as he’s tried to jump-start it, it hasn’t worked out. As we pointed out in a column last week, there’s nothing physically wrong with Lester, who again went over the 100-pitch count and again threw with his usual velocity.
He’s just not the same guy who started the season 6-0 with a 2.72 ERA. Over his last six starts, he’s 0-4 with a 7.20 ERA, allowing five runs over five innings Sunday. Couple this with Clay Buchholz’s aches and pain in his neck area, and suddenly the Red Sox have looked vulnerable despite sporting the second-best record in baseball to the St. Louis Cardinals.
It was another confusing outing in that Lester struck out eight batters, and didn’t walk anyone. Some of the hits were bloops, he counted four broken bats, and the Orioles hit it where there weren’t any fielders. But they all count.
He allowed a two-run homer to Chris Davis on what looked like a decent pitch low and away, but the lefthander only had one clean inning, the fourth.
Lester can overanalyze anything and tell you he had good stuff even on days when he gets beaten up. He’s probably right about having good stuff, but if the bottom line is five runs in five innings, that’s not what you’re looking for from your ace.
Lester fessed up to a stinker against Tampa Bay, but he didn’t in previous outings where he thought the line score was worse than the actual performance. When you’re an ace, you have to be in top form every time out.
Lester spoke of reducing the extent of a slump once you get into one. He thinks the slump is confined to his last outing. In fact, his words after the game didn’t sound like those from a guy who was beaten up at all, but one making progress. Those sentiments were also echoed by Sox manager John Farrell, who called Lester’s outing “an improvement.”
“It was a lot better than the last four [outings],” Lester said. “The way the ball came out of my hand, the way my stuff was. Obviously the results weren’t there. As far as command of all four pitches, it was there.”
When a reporter suggested there were some hard-hit balls, he disagreed.
“I wouldn’t say ‘hard-hit.’ I had four broken-bat hits. That’s not really hitting the ball hard,” said Lester. “I felt like the stuff was there with a lot of swing and misses, except for the home run.
“The ball was down in the zone and it’s probably the best cutter I’ve had all year. I had command of all four pitches — best command I’ve had all year. Usually when you break a bat, you get better results than that. Just have to keep at it and get better results.”
Lester worked diligently between starts to correct his problems. He walked seven batters his last time out against the Rays. He walked none in yesterday’s loss.
“The main adjustment was throwing strikes, I did that today,” he said. “Stuff was there. It wasn’t for a lack of stuff. I got back to being me. I did things in my last start I normally don’t. Today was mostly using the cutter and I had a swing-and-miss changeup.”
Lester used to dominate the Orioles. He went 14-0 against them at one point. But he was on the mound on the final day of the September collapse in 2011. Since then, he’s 0-2 in four starts vs. Baltimore, which has become a thorn in the side of the Red Sox.
“It gets back to me today giving our guys a chance. Will [Middlebrooks] hits a three-run homer — if I keep it at three runs, we’re in a tie game,” he said.
The Red Sox depend on Lester to be their horse. They depend on innings and getting deep into games. He’s gone four starts now unable to get seven innings.
“I said it last time, this team counts on me to throw innings and I haven’t done that,” said Lester. “It’s nobody’s fault but me. I have to do a better job getting deeper into games and do whatever you have to do. I haven’t done that the last couple. But the last month has been a grind. It flat comes down to doing a better job. No matter what the situation or who we’re playing, I have to get deeper. These guys rely upon me for that.”
Yet he sees it half-full, not half-empty. Asked if there’s light at the end of the tunnel, he said, “Absolutely. I feel with the exception of Tampa, I feel better than the line score shows. I’ve let stupid things within an inning get to me. To allow them to score a run or two.
“If I’m throwing the ball like I did today against the Detroit Tigers [in his next start], I like my chances. Those jam-shot four hits have to have a different result. You just tip your hat and move on,” Lester said.
Right now the level of optimism Lester has doesn’t match that of the fan base. He’s explained how he felt, what he did, and what happened. But the Red Sox lost the game, 6-3, to a team that is relentless against them. This is the team Lester must step up and beat like he used to when he won 14 straight against them and was 7-0 at Camden Yards before Sunday.
Aces beat the teams you have to beat. Lester feels he will have more of those moments, but for now Red Sox Nation remains skeptical.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.