In his first four starts this season, left-hander Jon Lester looked like the staff ace whom the Red Sox would be crazy to let get away in free agency. In his first four outings this season, Lester went a combined 29 innings, giving up seven earned runs on 26 hits and four walks with 29 strikeouts. While his record of 2-2 was not overwhelming, he had thrown quality starts in all four outings receiving just eight runs of supports in his 29 innings, with an impressive 2.17 ERA.
Tuesday night against the Yankees? Not so much.
Lester lasted just 4 2/3 innings, giving up eight runs, three earned, on 11 hits and four walks with seven strikeouts. He needed a whopping 118 pitches (76 strikes) in his abbreviated outing. For comparison: He needed just 112 pitches over eight innings to earn the win against the White Sox in his previous outing.
It was Lester’s worst outing in a long time by several measures:
• The most runs he had allowed since July 22, 2012, when he gave up 11 runs (all earned) on nine hits in four innings against the Blue Jays.
• His shortest outing since Aug. 2, 2013, when he lasted just 4 1/3 innings, giving up six runs on 11 hits against the Diamondbacks. It was the most hits he has allowed since that outing.
• Snapped a streak of 13 straight regular-season starts without allowing a first-inning run.
• The first Sox starting pitcher to give up five or more unearned runs since Bronson Arroyo gave up five on Aug. 5, 2005, at Minnesota.
“Just one of those nights,” said catcher A.J. Pierzynski. “We made good pitches. They got hit. We fell behind. He wasn’t as sharp I think as he’s been. He made some mistakes; they didn’t miss them. And when he made good pitches they still found ways to get hits.
“It’s just one of those things that those nights happen. It’s unfortunate it happened to Jon because he’s been throwing the ball so darn well that you just don’t think that’s ever going to happen when he’s out there because he’s so darn good.”
It wasn’t a matter of Lester working behind in the count. He threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 28 batters he faced, including all seven batters he faced in the first inning. But, he had just one 1-2-3 inning, the fourth. Of the five frames he started he allowed the first runner to reach base in four – three by base hits, one walk – with three of the four eventually coming around to score.
“They put some good swings on him,” said manager John Farrell. “And then when they mis-hit some balls, they found some holes. We didn’t help out defensively, particularly in that fourth inning. And once again we’re digging ourselves a hole early in the game to play catch up. That’s taken quite a bit of energy.”
Indeed, Lester was not helped by two errors – one each by A.J. Pierzynski, leading to one unearned run in the first and Mike Napoli, leading to four unearned runs in the fifth. But, neither did Lester help his own cause, giving up a triple to Jacoby Ellsbury to open the game in the Yankees two-run first, and three straight doubles to open the two-run third inning. Lester’s night ended after Jacoby Ellsbury’s two-run double in the fifth.
“[The Yankees’ approach is] to get runners on base and work counts,” Lester said. “And get you to make mistakes. That’s what’s going to get you in trouble.
“I know these guys [Sox fielders] are out there, we’re all out there busting our butts. Errors are part of the game, mistakes are part of the game. [Tuesday night] they hurt us. Other nights we’ve been able to make up for them or we’ve played exceptionally well. I will never fault a guy for making an error. I know the effort’s always there.
“Just I got to do a better job right there picking up Nap. He catches that ball 10 out of 10 times, and I just got to have a better at-bat against Jacoby right there and pick him up and I didn’t do it.”
Being the Sox ace, which Lester is, it is incumbent upon him to also be the stopper. Instead, he continued a discouraging – and concerning – trend by Sox starting pitchers. In their last turn through the rotation, Red Sox starters are 0-3, while the Sox are 2-3, with a combined 8.03 ERA, giving up 27 runs, 22 earned, over 24 2/3 innings, an average of just under five innings. No starter has gone at least seven full innings in the last turn, with Felix Doubront coming the closest with 6 2/3 innings against the Orioles on April 19 when he gave up two runs in a no-decision.
Opponents have scored first in each of the last five games, by a combined 20 runs, before the Sox offense could get runs on the board. In the last three games, opponents have posted five, six, and four runs, respectively, before the Sox could answer back.
“This turn through the rotation it’s been less than,” Farrell said. “It’s been less than we’ve shown in the past. It’s been less than expected. And for us to play with consistency we need our starting rotation to lead us through that. And right now we’re not getting that.”