Out of order
Something amiss with Lester again
MINNEAPOLIS - While much of the focus was on the shift of David Ortiz down in the order - to depths he hasn't seen in years, - there should have been concern laid at the feet of the man on the mound, as well. Because even as the Red Sox have stayed afloat - and even thrived - despite nonexistent offense from their designated hitter and spotty pitching from their starting rotation, the hole they continue to be put into by Jon Lester is getting deeper.
Lester now has allowed at least five earned runs in five of his starts this season, bringing his ERA to 6.07. He gave up that many runs in just four starts over 33 games in all of 2008. There is something amiss in 2009, that much is clear, even though three of those runs last night came on one fifth-inning blast by Justin Morneau, who has victimized pitchers 13 other times this season.
"I gave up five runs," Lester said after the Sox had lost, 5-2, to the Twins in front of 20,019 at the Metrodome. "What else is there to say about it?
"Made one pitch. One pitch cost me three runs. Ballgame right there. I felt like I threw the ball pretty well, made one mistake, he hit it out. That's what makes him a good hitter."
The fastball had been destined to go middle-in, and Lester said, "He was obviously looking fastball in, and he didn't miss it."
Even though Morneau hasn't been quite as absurd recently as Joe Mauer, he can wield a stick, too. He had spent time before the game being amused at the futile swings of some Minnesota Wild players taking batting practice, but he took no tips from the hockey guys. Instead, he lashed his three-run homer 367 feet to right field, where it smashed into the seats tucked upright and off limits.
As Morneau came around to score the final run of the night for the Twins, it was sealed. Lester would not be continuing his progress from his last start, in which he allowed one run in getting the win against Toronto. He regressed, adding to the frustration of the "one bad inning" that has plagued him for much of a season in which Lester is showing the strain of not pitching well and not knowing exactly why.
"When you look back, it can come down to one pitch," manager Terry Francona said. "I know there's a lot of things that happen. If you put up five runs in an inning, it's more than a pitch. But it was almost the same thing as Seattle. It looked like he's got a chance to get out of it. Then one pitch, and all of a sudden there's a crooked number on the board. I know he's frustrated.
"I guess I feel like he's so much closer to being real good and dominant than he is to the five-run inning."
Through the first four innings, it seemed Lester might replicate that last outing. But the two hits he had allowed to that point didn't matter by the time Kevin Youkilis winged the ball across the diamond for the final out in the fifth. With Dustin Pedroia having provided a one-run lead for the Sox in the top half, as his double brought home Jacoby Ellsbury, it was left to Lester to protect the slim margin. He couldn't.
Lester gave up three singles, producing a run. Denard Span drove in another with a ground out. With two outs, Lester walked Mauer to put two men on for Morneau.
"As I always tell him, he's a beast," Jason Bay said of Morneau, his World Baseball Classic teammate. "He's got a knack for knocking in runs. He drives in 120-plus every year, and he's one of those guys if there are guys out there, he sniffs them and he knocks them in."
With Nick Blackburn recording a career-high seven strikeouts and not allowing much to the Sox, the new lineup produced little, including from the sixth hitter. There's no telling what Ortiz was thinking as he stood on second in the second inning. He had lined a ball into right-center and hustled into second, a first stab at a return to respectability out of an unfamiliar place in the lineup. But even that ringing stroke, one that gave his teammates three opportunities to drive him in, didn't work out, as he was stranded at second. His teammates would score two runs, one each in the fifth and seventh, but it was not enough to overcome the Twins' fifth. Moving Ortiz to a new spot in the lineup didn't produce a win, nor an offensive onslaught from the DH. Just one double, one walk, and yet another strikeout.
"When you hit third, you must be swinging the bat good," Ortiz said in brief comments. "I'm not, obviously. The manager moved me to sixth because we've got guys swinging the bat good, right? Now I've got to work my way out, right? That's about it. I'm an employee. I follow orders."
Bay wasn't so sure it mattered, though.
"I don't want to say irrelevant, but I think it's a little less important than some people think," Bay said of a player's spot in the order. "In regards to David, maybe change is good. But ultimately you're only hitting in a certain spot in the lineup in the first inning. After that everything's mixed together. I think it's a good idea to just try something different sometimes. For the most part you're taking the same approach whether you're hitting second or ninth."
The same approach didn't work last night, for Ortiz or for Lester. So, yes, there are worries - even for a team with the most wins in the American League.
"I think it's just not executing pitches," Lester said. "Tonight it was a 1-0 fastball in. If he takes it, it ends up being a ball. I don't know what to tell you guys. I don't really have any answers for you. Five days I get the ball again. That's where I go.
"It doesn't matter what I do in-between starts. It matters on the day I pitch. You can work as hard as you want, watch as much film as you want, you still have to go and execute pitches and get people out. I did that for four innings, and obviously didn't in the fifth. Film work, side work, lifting isn't going to help the situation."