ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Red Sox used all seven of their relief pitchers Monday night in a 14-inning victory against the Tampa Bay Rays. That left it up to Jon Lester, the starting pitcher Tuesday night, to go deep into the game and give his weary teammates a break.
Starting pitchers consider such games a matter of personal pride. Unlike position players, they get only so many chances to pick up the team when it needs a lift.
Lester failed when needed, getting knocked out in the fifth inning in a game the Sox lost, 8-3, before 16,870 at Tropicana Field.
“I just flat-out didn’t get it done,” Lester said. “Just terrible.”
Desmond Jennings homered twice for the Rays, who beat the Sox for only the second time in eight games this season. The Sox will call up righthander Alfredo Aceves from Triple A Pawtucket to start the final game of the series Wednesday.
Lester (6-3) gave up seven runs on eight hits and seven walks, which matched his career high. He threw 98 pitches over 4⅔ innings.
“I let the team down when we needed a big start tonight. That solely rests on me, nobody else,” Lester said.
A bigger concern is the sharp downward turn Lester’s season has taken.
He was 6-0 with a 2.72 earned run average in his first nine starts of the season. The Sox won seven of those games. The lefthander is 0-3 with a 6.90 ERA in the five starts since. Over 30 innings he has allowed 38 hits — six of them home runs — with 18 walks.
Clay Buchholz has twice had starts pushed back this season because of minor injuries and now Lester is struggling. A Red Sox rotation that once looked strong is showing signs of wear at the top with 60 percent of the season still to play.
“All good players are going to go through peaks and valleys,” manager John Farrell said. “This is a turn through the rotation we’re having to grind a little bit.”
Control issues often indicate a pitcher is dealing with an injury and Lester has thrown 115 or more pitches in six of his starts. But he said with conviction that he feels fine.
“I honestly do,” Lester said. “I know pitch count has been a thing this year. But tonight I felt great, probably the best I’ve felt all season.”
Said Farrell: “It’s nothing physical. We’re still seeing consistent velocity. It’s just the overall consistent command.”
All seven runs the Rays scored came with two outs. In his last five starts, opponents have hit .438 against Lester with two outs.
But Farrell believes that is coincidental. Lester needs across-the-board fundamental improvement, he said.
“To the naked eye, to sit there and say that there’s one exact thing at this point, that’s pretty difficult to pinpoint,” Farrell said. “We’ve got some work to do with Jon.”
Lester needed 26 pitches to get out of the first inning, a sign of how rough his outing would be. With two outs and a runner on third, he walked Evan Longoria, Yunel Escobar, and James Loney to force in a run.
“The first inning kind of sums up the whole night,” Lester said. “Not able to repeat whatever pitch it may be — fastball, curveball, changeup, cutter. Just was not able to repeat whether it was location or the pitch itself. It’s not good.”
Jennings hit the first of his home runs in the second inning, a shot to center field.
With the Sox up, 3-2, in the third inning, Lester allowed two runs. Ben Zobrist singled before Escobar walked with one out. Loney struck out before Lester allowed singles by Ryan Roberts, Jose Molina, and Matt Joyce.
“For lack of a better term, that’s [terrible] on my part,” Lester said. “Guys kept battling back and every time they did, I gave it right back to them. That’s unacceptable.”
Longoria homered in the fourth inning, the ball just sneaking over the fence.
Lester’s control problems surfaced again in the fifth inning when he walked Roberts and Molina. Lester picked off Roberts when he tried to steal third. But that was negated when Joyce homered deep to right field.
Righthander Jose De La Torre, summoned from Triple A Pawtucket to shore up the bullpen replaced Lester after the home run. Jennings greeted him with a home run to left.
De La Torre finished the game, throwing 52 pitches. Although the move was not announced, he will probably be returned to the minors to make room for Aceves on the roster.
“It was good that I finished the game and nobody had to come in,” De La Torre said.
As De La Torre spoke to reporters, Lester interrupted briefly to shake his hand.
“Good job,” he said. “Thanks for picking me up.”
Rays starter Roberto Hernandez was sent home from the park during the middle innings on Monday to get a full night’s sleep. When the game went deep into the night, he was called and told to come back.
Hernandez was not needed in relief on Monday and the unexpected wake-up call didn’t hurt his effort on Tuesday. He held the Sox to three runs over seven innings.
Hernandez allowed seven hits, walked two, and struck out seven in his first start against the Sox since May 24, 2011 when he was with the Indians and known as Fausto Carmona.
Mike Napoli had a two-run single in the third inning. The Sox got two hits each from Jacoby Ellsbury and Jose Iglesias.
Iglesias was 2 for 4 and raised his batting average to .449. His 14-game hit streak is the longest for an American League rookie this season.Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.