BALTIMORE — Every pitcher has a nemesis, and Orioles left fielder Nelson Cruz is one of Jon Lester’s biggest.
That situation reared its ugly head in Monday’s 2-1 Red Sox loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Opening Day at jam-packed Camden Yards when Cruz pounded a first-pitch fastball into the left-field bleachers in the seventh inning for what turned out to be the winning run.
Lester and catcher A.J. Pierzynski both said the pitch wasn’t really a mistake, but actually a decent offering that Cruz did a good piece of hitting on.
Of course, Cruz, now 11 for 24 with three homers in his career vs. Lester, often seems to get the bat on any type of Lester pitch.
“I felt fine out there,” Lester said. “Thought I had a good fastball and cutter and we went with that. There was really no reason to throw anything else the way we were going. Five singles and a solo homer, I’ll take my chances with that any time.”
Lester pitched seven innings, allowing two runs on six hits with one walk and eight strikeouts.
Of course the ace of the staff wants to come away with a win on Opening Day, but the fact of the matter is the loss wasn’t Lester’s fault.
Blame the Sox offense for non-support; Boston left 12 men on base and was 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position.
Chris Tillman, who probably pitched the Sox tougher than any starter in baseball last season but who was hittable Monday, was lucky to allow just one run in his five innings.
Conversely, Lester was unlucky to have lost a game he pitched so well in.
“Jon throws like that all year, he’ll win a lot of games,” Pierzynski said. “Nelson got him for the homer and he walked him in the second inning, which led to another run.
“I was with Nelson all of last year in Texas. He had a locker beside me and I watched him all year. He got some big hits for us, so I wasn’t surprised with that he did today.”
Pierzynski said he was unaware of Cruz’s success vs. Lester over the years because “that’s not what I pay attention to. I’m more concerned with how we’re going to pitch him. Like I said, the pitch he hit out wasn’t really a mistake.”
Lester concurred. He was far more upset about that leadoff walk he issued to Cruz in the second, which was followed by a single to Matt Wieters. The run scored on an unconventional 4-3-6 double play.
There was no point in the game at which it appeared Lester didn’t have control of what he was doing. He didn’t have to throw his curveball (except in a sequence to Ryan Flaherty) or changeup much; just fastballs and cutters got the desired result.
Lester threw 104 pitches, and while there was some angst in Red Sox Nation about why he came out for the seventh inning, why not? Were there any signs of fatigue? Not really.
Perhaps having to face Cruz caused some consternation, but again, every pitcher has a nemesis.
Cruz is a performance-enhancing drug offender. He served 50 games for a positive test while with the Rangers last season.
Pierzynski characterized him as a great teammate who knew he did the wrong thing.
Many fans on Twitter noted the Sox were beaten by a steroid guy in Game 1, but the Sox could have made that irrelevant with a better offensive showing.
Lester always has been honored to receive the Opening Day start, even this season after contract talks broke down (or, as general manager Ben Cherington put it, “paused”) at the end of spring training. That didn’t seem to faze Lester in the least.
The 30-year-old lefty has a lot on the line.
Obviously, what he and his agents were asking for was more than what the Sox wanted to spend. We’ve indicated in this space before that over the past couple of years, the Sox have signed players only on their terms.
They did it with all of their free agents in the offseason of 2012. They did it with Grady Sizemore, and with Mike Napoli on his two-year deal (he could have had three years in two other places). They did it with Dustin Pedroia (an eight-year extension for $110 million) and with David Ortiz’s recent $16 million extension, tying the $16 million figure in two option seasons after that to plate appearances.
What hitter of Ortiz’s caliber has to make plate appearances to earn his money?
So the Sox want Lester to do what he said he was going do — sign long-term at a hometown discount. Lester wasn’t willing to do that before spring training broke.
There’s risk on both sides.
Lester now must keep performing at a high level to earn the type of contract he wants. And he must stay healthy to see that huge payday as he enters free agency.
The Sox certainly run the risk of seeing Lester have an outstanding, perhaps even a Cy Young Award season, and then have him be worthy of a six-year, $144 million deal like the one Max Scherzer turned down with the Tigers late in spring training.
Cherington said he’s open to continuing discussions at some point in the season, perhaps after the team has a better sample of how Lester is going.
Cherington also said he’s not ruled out playing it out until the end and then competing for Lester’s services — or not competing — much as the Sox decided to do with Jonathan Papelbon and Jacoby Ellsbury.
While Lester acknowledged being disappointed about a new deal not being completed, he vowed to keep his concentration on his pitching and once again leading the Sox.
If anything, Lester’s career has been extremely consistent, with the exception of hiccups late in 2011 and in some of 2012. He certainly straightened things out at the beginning of 2013 with a very good regular season and a tremendous postseason.
And he started 2014 with a strong outing, worthy of a win Monday in Baltimore — if not for the intervention of an old nemesis.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.