- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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CHICAGO -- Forty days and 40 nights had passed since Jon Lester last gave up a home run. He had made six starts since then, and won them all. One hundred eighty-two batters had come to the plate, and the Boston Red Sox left-hander had kept them all in the ballpark.
But on the night Lester was bidding to become a 20-game winner, an achievement for a pitcher that still carries cachet even in a stats-obsessed world that devalues wins as a measure of excellence, U.S. Cellular Field wasn't big enough to hold that dream.
Lester isn't going to win 20 games, and his outside chance of winning the American League Cy Young Award also evaporated Thursday night when the Chicago White Sox took him deep twice in the span of four batters in an 8-2 Red Sox defeat.
White Sox slugger Paul Konerko, who had begun his day with a news conference musing about his chances of remaining in Chicago, launched a grand slam in the fourth inning, breaking a 2-all tie. Three batters later, White Sox rookie Dayan Viciedo homered to right with a man on in the fifth. When Brent Morel then walked on four pitches, it was time for Sox manager Terry Francona to turn out the lights on Lester's season, though it would be another inning before The Cell went partially dark during a 21-minute power outage.
"He's pitched in a lot of big games,'' Francona said, when asked if winning No. 20 became an extra burden for Lester. "I think we all wanted him to do well. It wasn't the outcome we wanted, but I don't think he pitched poorly because of nerves.''
Lester's last line of 2010 wasn't pretty: 4+ IP, 9 H, 8 ER, 2 HR, 5 BB ,5 K's. He finishes the season with a 19-9 record and 3.25 ERA, his ERA taking a sizeable jump from the 2.96 with which he started the night.
"One of those days, and a bad day to have one of 'em,'' Lester said as his teammates hurriedly packed up for the last trip home of the season, having lost their past three games here. "Obviously, you'd like to end on a little better note than that, but that's the way it is.''
The 34-year-old Konerko is a Rhode Island native, born in Providence, who moved to Arizona when he was 11. He has hit more home runs in the big leagues than any Rhode Islander. Wednesday night's home run was his 39th of the season and 365th of his career, 129 more than Gabby Hartnett, pride of Woonsockett.
The grand slam was the first ever allowed by Lester, who was aware of that fact even before reporters brought it up to him after the game.
"It's one of those things hard not to realize, you know?'' Lester said. "Hopefully, I'll give up a couple more because that means I'll be pitching a long time.''
"I threw a fastball up and he hit it out,'' Lester said. "It doesn't matter the sequence. He's obviously having a great year, and anytime you throw a fastball up to guys who can do what he can do, it's not good.
"If I locate it, does he hit a ground ball? Maybe. Does he still hit it out? Maybe. I don't know. I threw it up in the zone and kind of provided a little bit of the power for him. He put a good swing on it. It's a tough thing to do, to hit with the bases loaded. It's a tough thing to pitch to. He fouled off some tough pitches.''
And so, Lester ends the season stuck on 19. Yes, he acknowledged, he had thought about what was at stake before the game.
"Not a lot, but I did think about it,'' he said. "It's something that's obviously there. You can't hide from it. [But] I don't think it had a bearing on tonight's game.''
There have been 11 pitchers in Red Sox history who have had 19-win seasons. Of that number, only three -- Pedro Martinez, Howard Ehmke and Ray Collins -- have gone on to win 20. There have been 47 20-win seasons in Sox history, the last by Josh Beckett (20-7) in 2007. Lester is just 26 years old. The suspicion is that he'll have another shot.
"Like I've said all along, it's more disappointing not making the playoffs,'' Lester said. "Would it have been nice? Yeah, I'm not going to lie to you. Regardless of all that, we didn't make the playoffs, we didn't meet our goal this year, and that's more disappointing than a win-loss record or whatever else you want to put on it.''
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.