OAKLAND, Calif. - With the no-hitter talk over quickly - Jon Lester gave up a single to leadoff hitter Jack Hannahan just four pitches into yesterday's game - there was a far more important task on the agenda: Winning a game.
Three games into the Red Sox' 10-game swing through three cities, that hasn't happened yet. And it comes on the heels of the Sox dropping their final four games of their last road trip, making it a seven-game skid away from Fenway Park. The A's completed their three-game brooming of the Red Sox with a 6-3 win before 35,067 yesterday at McAfee Coliseum. The loss, coupled with Tampa Bay's win over Baltimore, sent the Red Sox to second place in the American League East - and had Manny Ramírez joking that they can still, at least, win the wild card.
But the road losing streak is serious, if not puzzling. Detroit, where the Red Sox went 3-1, marked the team's last haven away from home. That was followed by nightmarish trips through Minnesota (1-3) and Baltimore (0-2). After a 7-0 homestand, the Sox hit the road again and promptly dropped three straight in Oakland. So perhaps Seattle, where the team flew last night, will be the place to break the string, the place to get the Red Sox' road record looking a bit more like its home version, where they boast the best winning percentage in the majors.
Because, though the team had both good (Josh Beckett) and bad (Tim Wakefield) pitching in Oakland, it was in the batter's box where the team struggled, with just six runs over the three games.
"They threw the ball really well," catcher Jason Varitek said. "Everyone made multiple different pitches ahead or behind in the count. It took some of the aggressiveness out of our at-bats."
But, still, Lester wasn't nearly the pitcher he was last Monday. And that wasn't just because he didn't throw a no-hitter. While he had improved in nearly every category - from throwing first-pitch strikes to efficiency recently - that wasn't the case yesterday.
"All the positives that we talked about in the start before, getting ahead, dictating the count, I did the complete opposite today," said Lester, who allowed four runs (three earned) on seven hits and two walks in five innings. "It was just frustrating. I could never really find a rhythm, couldn't get a tempo. All the things that we had strived to get better at this year, it just seemed like I took a step backwards where it came to that."
Varitek wouldn't go that far, but it was apparent from the outset Lester was in for a tough afternoon. Hannahan came around to score after his leadoff single courtesy of Emil Brown's two-out single. That was followed by another run in the third, Ramírez's error in left field leaving Hannahan on third to lead off. He came home on Mike Sweeney's single.
Oakland increased its lead to 4-2 in the fourth, Hannahan's two-RBI single providing the eventual winning margin. But it wasn't until the seventh, that Javier Lopez allowed the backbreaking hit, a two-run homer to Jack Cust on Lopez's first pitch in the series.
"We talk to him so much about working ahead, because when he works ahead he is a much tougher pitcher," manager Terry Francona said of Lopez. "He got a first pitch out over the plate, Cust was ready for it, and hit it a long way."
There weren't all that many opportunities on the other side, though. David Ortiz hit his 11th home run on an 0-1 pitch from Joe Blanton in the first inning. But the rallies - especially with fewer than two outs - were few and far between, until the fifth. It was then that Blanton began missing his target, walking Julio Lugo, Dustin Pedroia, and Ortiz (sandwiched around a Jacoby Ellsbury out), loading the bases for Ramírez.
The left fielder came through, delivering a two-run single. That would be the extent of the Boston offense. Though Lugo bunted for a single in the ninth off closer Huston Street, the game ended with Ellsbury's double play ball.
"If you don't give yourself a ton of chances, you need a break," Francona said. "I think one of our characteristics is we give ourselves a lot of chances and we really didn't this series. Those things happen."
All that seems to be happening right now is a lot of road losses. And a lot of questions without answers. Asked to explain that home-road differential, one that stands at 21-5 at Fenway Park versus 10-17 on the road, Varitek smiled a bit ruefully. He didn't have an explanation any more than anyone else did. It's not that they're playing poorly overall - it's just when they leave Boston.
"Each one of these three days has been something a little different," Varitek said. "Got behind the eight-ball early with a good guy on the mound, good pitching performance both sides. Big home run late today for them. And that's really the difference. Yeah, it is fun playing at home. [But] we'll find a way. We'll have to find a way."