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A catch with two pitchers

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 26, 2012
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ARLINGTON, Texas — One was working feverishly in the bullpen before the game in 100-plus-degree conditions, and the other was trying to reinvent himself in the game.

Can we emphasize enough how important Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are to the fortunes of the Red Sox?

The Red Sox are 15-32 since Sept. 1 in games started by Beckett and Lester, including 13-24 this season. If they were doing even a mediocre job, say 19-18 in those games, the Sox would be in the first wild-card position, truly chasing the Yankees, and their outlook would be considerably better.

With a major league-high 22 players on the disabled list this season, it really comes down to these two, doesn’t it?

Beckett entered the rubber match of the Texas series with a 10.69 ERA in the first inning, 6.65 in the first three innings. He solved the first-inning problem Wednesday night, but squandered a 2-0 lead, then couldn’t hold the Rangers after the Red Sox tied it, 3-3, on Dustin Pedroia’s home run in the sixth, and the Sox lost, 5-3.

To be fair, you can’t win many games scoring three runs, so the offense bears some responsibility. But when you squander leads, and throw a wild pitch that allows the go-ahead run in the seventh inning after a hit batsman (Elvis Andrus), that’s on Beckett.

“Josh gave us a zero in the first inning, as promised, and pitched a good game,’’ said manager Bobby Valentine. “Two outs, nobody on, in the seventh, a wild pitch to score a go-ahead run is a damn shame. It was pretty good. After Dustin hit the homer, [Beckett] went back out there, put two guys on with singles.”

Beckett, as has been his practice of late, did not speak with the media after his performance.

According to statistician Bill Chuck, entering Wednesday night batters were seeing just 3.58 pitches per plate appearance, the fewest of Beckett’s career. It’s not that Beckett isn’t throwing strikes (66 percent), but his strikes-looking percentage (24) is the lowest of his career. Batters are also putting more balls in play (32 percent of his strikes). And 76 percent of the strikes are fouled off, put into play, or swung at, and that is 50 percent of his total pitches. For the fifth straight year his strikeout-looking percentage has fallen (22 percent).

Beckett, now 5-9 with a 4.57 ERA, walked Andrus with one out in the first, and Kelly Shoppach threw him out attempting to steal. Beckett allowed a single in the second, and got out of that. His best escape came in the third, when he had first and third with no outs, and then second and third with one out, and got out of it to preserve Boston’s 1-0 lead.

But in the fourth Beckett allowed doubles to Michael Young and David Murphy to produce one run, a single to Yorvit Torrealba, and then a suicide squeeze bunt by Craig Gentry scored the second run. Ian Kinsler’s bloop single to right plated the third run, and Beckett had given up the lead.

Lester simply needs a trip to the mechanic. And that was pitching coach Bob McClure. Lester never has struggled this much in his career. There does not appear to be anything physically wrong. His velocity is no longer in the 96-97 range, as it was in 2010. That’s where McClure is trying to take Lester, back in time.

“His stuff is still real good,” McClure said. “From a technical standpoint, we’re just trying to get him back to where he was in 2010. Part of it is when something bad happens he thinks back to the last six weeks to two months of last season, when he thinks this all started.

“He got into some bad habits. It’s really some simple stuff. His legs get going around instead of down and out. That’s basically it. When he doesn’t go down and out, he winds up flat. If you look at 2010, you can see his leg come up, down a little bit, out, but it’s more up, down now, which keeps everything straight and not swaying. The way the lower half goes, the hips are going to go and the upper half is going to go. We’re just trying to stay taller, not swing out so much, so the ball is not coming in flat.”

In the sweltering heat, Lester faced batters Pedro Ciriaco and Daniel Nava. Lester was trying to get a perspective of what the hitter was seeing.

“It was really good,” McClure said of the session. “He’s gone through tougher things than this. He’s going to come out of it. I know he’s going to come out of it. It’s hard for him to go through it. This is the first time he’s really struggled and it’s snowballed.

“It’s going good and then a couple of things happen. It’s natural to say, ‘Here we go again.’ He’s in a real good frame of mind. His stuff is really good.”

McClure had no answer for why Lester’s velocity is down or why Lester doesn’t pitch inside more, which McClure has talked to him about.

The numbers are shocking. He’s allowed lefthanded hitters a .273 average, compared with .207 last season. Once a superb Fenway pitcher, he’s 2-6 with a 7.39 ERA at home. He’s allowed 37 fly ball hits in 117 plate appearances. His home run percentage allowed has risen each of the last three seasons. Hitters are batting .274 with runners in scoring position and .306 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

In the 15 starts in which Jarrod Saltalamacchia has caught him, Lester has a 6.13 ERA, compared with a 3.68 ERA in the five games Shoppach has caught him. This could be a sign that Jason Varitek is missed. McClure mentioned how veteran catchers can make a big difference for a pitcher. He explained how valuable Ted Simmons was for him in Milwaukee, but also said, “I think a lot like Varitek probably did here, he taught pitchers how to think for themselves and be responsible for what they threw out there.”

It either gets straightened out or the Red Sox can write off the season.

Which is why there’s hesitancy in the front office to pull the trigger on a deal, pending what the team does over the next few games leading up to Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline. The Sox have their eyes on a couple of pitchers, the Cubs’ Matt Garza and the Marlins’ Josh Johnson.

According to a major league source, the Sox are not going to pursue the Brewers’ Zach Greinke.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Cafardo@Globe.com.

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