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Ace on his slump: ‘I stink’

David Ortiz, who has eight RBIs this month, heads to the dugout after grounding out with two men on to end the seventh. David Ortiz, who has eight RBIs this month, heads to the dugout after grounding out with two men on to end the seventh. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)
By Nick Cafardo
September 25, 2011

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You could see the anguish and the look of disgust on his face.

Jon Lester knew more than anyone that he had messed up at the worst possible moment. To be considered among the game’s elite pitchers, he knew he had to win this game. Instead, the free fall continued. After a 9-1 loss to the Yankees yesterday, the Red Sox have a 5-17 record in September, a month in which their starting pitchers have gone five or fewer innings in 15 games this month and where the team ERA this month is 6.15.

Can’t win that way.

Lester knows it.

He bristled at questions that he might be hurt because he wanted no part of excuses.

“No, we’re not going to get into that,’’ he snapped. “I’m not tired. I’m not hurt. There’s nothing wrong with me. I wouldn’t go out there if there was something wrong with me. It’s nothing physical.’’

Pressing?

“I’m not. I can speak for myself. As for the rest of the guys in this clubhouse, if they are you’ll have to ask them, but I’m not,’’ he said.

The reason?

“I stink. If I had the answer it wouldn’t happen. You could go 32-0 if you had the answer why you suck sometimes,’’ Lester said. “This happens. It’s part of baseball. Teams go through stretches like we’re going through. I go through stretches like I’m doing. It’s the name of the game.

“Sometimes you throw the ball right down the middle and it gets popped up. That’s baseball. You make a pitch on the black and it gets hit 400 feet. If we had all the answers we’d bat 1.000 and we’d go 32-0.’’

If he got any credit for going out there for 2 2/3 innings and allowing eight hits and eight runs - six of which came in a horrible second inning in which Sox fielders had their heads in the clouds - is that he stood out front in the clubhouse like a man and didn’t make one excuse.

Are you watching, John Lackey? What Lester did is worth something, because it shows accountability and it shows that he cares.

Lester, Terry Francona, Theo Epstein, and Joe Fan know if this team is to go anywhere in the postseason, Lester and Josh Beckett have to be solid 1-2 starters. Beckett gave up a 4-1 lead in his last outing. Now Lester, who has lost three straight games, couldn’t get out of his own way.

The Sox don’t need to do much the remainder of the regular season to get into the postseason. But one thing they need to do is win a game or two. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Sox could get in without winning a game if the Rays and Angels stumble the remainder of the way. It would just make things easier if Beckett and Lester pitch the way they’re capable and shut someone down.

The Sox need someone to out and out dominate the opposition. And neither Beckett nor Lester have been able to do it.

“I gave up too many hits and runs,’’ Lester said. “Just one of those deals. I’ve been getting my [butt] kicked lately. Not a good time to have this stretch.’’

Lester said that in his last three starts he’s suffered different afflictions. He talked about throwing too many pitches in a 9-1 loss in Tampa Bay Sept. 11 and too many walks in a 4-3 loss to the Rays Sept. 17.

“This one, getting hit around,’’ he said.

Lester had been excellent against the Yankees, having won his last four starts at Yankee Stadium and he was 8-2 with a 3.53 ERA over his career against the Yankees. Not yesterday.

After breezing through the first inning, the second inning was his hell on earth.

He got the first out and then a series of hits - a nice in-and-out swing by Robinson Cano for a single to left, a walk to Nick Swisher, and an infield single by Andruw Jones loaded the bases. On Jones’s hit, Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro thought about trying to cut down Cano at third, but when he saw Mike Aviles wasn’t near the bag, he went to second base too late.

Jesus Montero’s single to left drove in one and Russell Martin popped a ball to left that Carl Crawford the Gold Glove would have eaten up, but this Carl Crawford failed to get to it, allowing two more runs to score.

Then Derek Jeter hit an outside fastball on the first pitch into the right-field bleachers for a three-run clout. All of a sudden, 6-0.

In the third inning there were two outs and again three straight hits, topped by a Montero double. That was it.

In the biggest game of the season to date, Lester failed to make it out of the third inning.

“It seems when things go bad, they get magnified and critique every detail,’’ said Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Lester wound up throwing 55 pitches, so if the Sox make it to the playoffs, he’ll be well rested and could wind up being Boston’s Game 1 starter.

“I just have to get back on the mound and keep pitching,’’ he said.

Lester said that there isn’t one specific thing he has to work on with pitching coach Curt Young this week. Whatever he’s doing or not doing doesn’t appear to be anything fixable by watching video. He doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with his delivery or mechanics or whether or not he’s finishing his pitches.

Lester has not even reached 190 innings, so fatigue should not be an issue. He’s built to be a 200-inning type of pitcher.

If it isn’t an injury or fatigue, then it’s really frustrating. Because then it’s what Lester says it is: Right now, he stinks.

And the look on his face last night indicated he wanted desperately to do something about that.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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