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Closing Time: Jon Lester lays an egg as Red Sox get routed by Rays

06.11.13 at 10:19 pm ET
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After using seven relief pitchers on Monday night, the Red Sox were in need of some heavy lifting from Jon Lester on Tuesday against the Rays, both to bail out the bullpen and to get himself back on track after a series of less-than-spectacular starts.

Instead, Lester labored through 4 2/3 innings before handing over a 7-3 Rays lead to Jose De La Torre. He walked a season-high seven batters and gave up eight hits, three of which were home runs, in the eventual 8-3 loss.

Lester threw 98 pitches, just 50 — barely half — for strikes, and needed 70 to get through the first three innings. It was a rough night from the get-go for the lefty, who walked four in the first inning alone, the fourth of which came with the bases loaded and brought home the Rays’ first run. His off-speed pitches weren’t working for him, and two of his four first-inning walks, as well as all three home runs he gave up, came on his sinker.

The Sox’ Opening Day starter assumed full responsibility for his poor performance.

“It’s just terrible. I did a terrible job of helping out our bullpen, I did a terrible job of keeping the ball down in the zone. The list goes on. This is solely on me. These guys count on me to go out there and throw innings, and I didn’€™t do that tonight. I just flat-out didn’€™t get it done,” Lester said. “I really let the bullpen, really let the team down. We needed a big start tonight, and I didn’€™t do it. Like I said, that solely rests on me. Nobody else.

“For lack of a better term, it’s [expletive] on my part,” he added. “Guys kept battling back, and every time they did, I gave it right back to them. It’s unacceptable. I’ve got to do a better job.”

Given the way Lester’s last several games have gone, Tuesday was cause for concern, particularly given ongoing questions about his workload at a time when he leads all of the majors in pitches throws. Lester now has a 6.90 ERA in his last five starts, and he’s walked 18 and given up 38 hits in 30 innings over those five outings.

Additionally, in five of Lester’s last seven starts, he’s thrown over 20 pitches in the first inning, making it harder for him to go deep into games. In his previous two, he needed 108 and 116 pitches to get through six and 6 1/3 innings, respectively, and that trend took a significant turn for the worse on Tuesday.

“It’s not so much a glaring issue with the delivery. It’s just maintaining it from inning to inning,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “There’s nothing physical. You’re still seeing consistent velocity. It’s just the overall consistent command. There have been times where he’s gotten a little bit flat through the strike zone, but to say it’s one thing, a part of the delivery or some timing mechanism inside of it, that’s not glaring.”

Lester agreed that the issue was not one of either health or overuse.

“I feel great. I honestly do,” he told reporters. “I know pitch count’s been a thing this year, but tonight I felt great. Probably the best I’ve felt all season. It just comes down to commanding the baseball, whether you have nagging stuff, minor stuff, whatever it is ‘€” commanding the baseball is simple, and I didn’€™t do that.”

Farrell suggested the issue was more one of execution than of health or a single, consistent flaw in Lester’s delivery. Still, it’s evident that he’s not who he had been to start the year, nor who the Sox need him to be.

“All good players are going to go through peaks and valleys,” said Farrell. “We’ve got some work to do with Jon.”

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

– Lester’s command issues were what buried the Sox on Monday, and they were part of a larger issue: the Sox entered Tuesday’s game trailing only the Astros for the most walks issued by a pitching staff, but by the end of the night they had passed Houston, leading the majors with 245.

The Sox also lead the majors with eight bases-loaded walks, and five of those have come in the last five games. Franklin Morales brought that issue to the forefront in his shaky relief appearance on Saturday, when he walked in two runs, but Lester’s issues Tuesday were more troubling, considering the degree to which the Red Sox lean on him for innings.

– Although the Sox got seven hits off of Tampa starter Roberto Hernandez, none of those went for extra bases. After Lester exited the game, they didn’t do much toward climbing out of the hole he’d left, with just three hits after the third inning.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

– De La Torre was called up specifically to give the Sox a pitcher who could soak up the middle innings Tuesday if need be, and while he did his job, lasting 3 1/3 innings, he did give up the Rays’ fourth home run of the night, to Desmond Jennings, immediately upon entering the game. However, while he also struggled with command issues (three walks), De La Torre offered a reprieve to a Sox bullpen on fumes after Monday’s 14-inning affair. After Jennings’ homer, he didn’t allow another run.

“Outstanding. Saved the bullpen,” Farrell said of De La Torre. “Probably his longest outing of the year, whether it’s here or in Pawtucket. He did exactly what we needed tonight.”

Jose Iglesias started at third base and extended his hitting streak to 14 games, singling twice and scoring on a single by Mike Napoli. He’s now hitting .449 with a .494 on-base percentage, and while he’s still carrying an absurd .523 batting average on balls in play, Iglesias has been a steadier offensive presence at the bottom of the order than anyone could have expected.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino continue to provide a solid combination at the top of the order. Ellsbury singled to lead off the game, stole second and came around to score the Sox’ first run on a sacrifice fly. Victorino was right behind him, also singling and stealing second, although he was stranded there.

– The heart of the Red Sox order continued to remind pitchers that it’s tough to pitch around any one of them. In the third inning, with runners on second and third and two outs, David Ortiz was intentionally walked to load the bases for Napoli. Napoli hit a fly ball to center that dropped in for a single, scoring two runs and putting the Sox ahead, 3-2.

Rob Bradford contributed from St. Petersburg, Fla.

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