Sox, Lester limp into Marathon Monday

BOSTON -- As a warm-up for Marathon Monday, we had the Fenway sprint, as folks raced Sunday to see how quickly they could empty the ancient yard before the reality of another Red Sox defeat set in.

The Sox are 4-8 after their first dozen games following Sunday's 7-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, their fourth straight loss, third to the Rays.

They have not held a lead in their last 39 innings. They have scored just seven runs in that span, and four of those runs came in one inning. They do not have a hit in their last 25 at-bats with a runner in scoring position. That includes loading the bases with no outs in the 11th inning of Friday/Saturday's suspended game, and failing to score.

The starting pitching has been problematic. Clay Buchholz spotted the Rays a 4-0 lead in the first inning Saturday. On Sunday, the Rays were up 4-0 on Jon Lester by the end of the third. In Thursday's 8-0 loss to the Twins in Minnesota, Tim Wakefield was behind 4-0 after five.

The vaunted defense has leaked at terribly inopportune times, including both of the first two games of this series, and looked shaky again Sunday, as Mike Cameron got a late break on Evan Longoria's double and Lester made a throwing error.

"Obviously, nobody's happy,'' said Lester, who gave up two-run homers to Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton and also walked his way into trouble in a two-run third by issuing free passes to Gabe Kapler and Jason Bartlett to open the inning.

"This isn't the way we envisioned starting the season. We've given some games away, but we've also played very hard and sometimes teams have just beat us. Things are going to turn around. We're not going to play like this all year. We're too good a team, have too much talent to play like this.

"Things will be better. I don't know when, but they'll get better.''

Early? Well, sure, but even so, you have to go back to 1996 to find a Sox team that had a worse record this early, and that 2-10 start eventually cost manager Kevin Kennedy his job.

The Red Sox are already four games under .500, a start that has spotted the Rays and Yankees a five-game lead in the AL East. No Sox team since 1997 has been this far below sea level as late as Patriots' Day.

"Nobody is going to feel sorry for us,'' manager Terry Francona said. "We kind of dug our own hole, so we're going to have to dig ourselves out.

"We're not doing a lot of things correct right now. Every day it seems to be something different.''

On Sunday, the Sox didn't have a base runner off Matt Garza until Adrian Beltre's single in the fifth, and Beltre made the mistake of trying to stretch the hit into a double even though the Sox trailed by four runs.

Through seven innings, Garza had still faced the minimum, as singles by Jason Varitek in the sixth and Marco Scutaro in the seventh were erased by double plays. A walk and Beltre's one-out double put runners on second and third in the eighth, and still the Sox couldn't break through, as Jeremy Hermida tapped out to the pitcher and Varitek flied out.

A mock cheer arose from the stragglers in the ninth, when the Sox finally scored off Rays reliever Mike Ekstrom, Dustin Pedroia's sacrifice fly scoring Cameron, who had doubled and taken third on a ground ball.

The Red Sox hold Garza in the highest regard. One Sox official said this spring that Garza was one of the three best pitchers in the league.

There is compelling evidence that if you match up Garza and Lester, young ace against young ace, the advantage is with the Rays. Since the start of the 2008 season, they have faced each other four times, including the postseason. The Rays have won all four. Garza has allowed four earned runs and 15 hits in 28 innings, for a 1.29 ERA. Lester has allowed 15 earned runs in 24 2/3 innings (5.47 ERA).

Lester's poor starts continue to mystify. In 14 starts in March/April, he has a 5.46 ERA while giving up a dozen home runs. Three starts into this season, he has an 0-2 record and 8.44 ERA.

He saw some positives Sunday, but referred to it as a "tale of two pitchers." The good Lester had his moments, but the bad Lester carried the day. He was particularly agitated about walking Kapler after being ahead 0-and-2, then following that with a first-pitch strike to Bartlett, only to walk him too.

"Terrible,'' Lester said of the walks. "I'm getting tired of getting ahead of guys, then go to 3-and-2 and end up being predictable. Whether I walk somebody or give up a hit, it's unacceptable. I've got to do a better job, especially when I get ahead of guys.''

Lester, who struck out the side to open the game, said he could accept the home run by Pena, the fifth the Rays slugger has hit off him, despite the advantage Lester should hold as a lefty facing a left-handed hitter. The home run came after a double to the center-field wall by Longoria on which Cameron broke late.

"He's a fastball hitter and I'm a fastball pitcher,'' Lester said. "He's either going to get me or I'm going to get him. I'm not going to shy away from my game plan because the guy can hit fastballs.

"First pitch after a double and he hits it out, what can you do? I haven't seen the pitch. I don't know if it was located up or what. He put a good swing on it.''

But he lamented having Upton 1-and-2 in the sixth, then falling behind before Upton hit one on top of the camera well in center. "He gets back in the count, he gets comfortable, I become predictable and he hits it out.''

Much is expected of Lester this season; he was a popular choice to win the AL Cy Young Award, and many have deemed him the ace of the Sox staff, ahead of Josh Beckett.

"I don't know what I have to do,'' Lester said. "I have to do better, that's all, and it's unacceptable. I'm letting the rotation down, I'm letting the bullpen down. After last night, I have to do a better job and go deeper in the ballgame. I needed to give them a blow and I didn't do that.

"Most important, I'm letting the team down with how I'm throwing the ball right now. I need to pick it up, kick myself in the butt. I don't know what else I can do, but I'm going to figure it out."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.