Commentary

Jon Lester can't escape this time

Updated: May 31, 2011, 1:39 AM ET
By Steven Krasner | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Jon Lester took the small-picture approach. Manager Terry Francona offered a bigger-picture analysis and hinted at tinkering with the Red Sox left-hander's pitch selection.

But despite the difference in outlook after Lester and the Red Sox were beaten 7-3 by the Chicago White Sox on Monday night at Fenway Park, the bottom line is that Lester has been struggling in un-ace-like fashion, beginning with his start at Toronto on May 10.

[+] Enlarge Jon Lester
Elsa/Getty ImagesJon Lester can't hide his frustration during his rough sixth inning against the White Sox.

Lester chalked up Monday night's problems to being just a bad game. Francona linked the performance with several other recent mediocre outings, intimating that Lester has fallen in love with his devastating cutter at the expense of the other pitches in his generally impressive repertoire.

Some extra mental and physical work with pitching coach Curt Young is in the offing for Lester, who won't be pitching again until June 7 in New York because of scheduled off days this Thursday and next Monday.

Yes, Lester has been winning games -- he is tied for the major-league lead in wins with seven.

His pitching lines, though, have not been nearly as pretty as his record, which dipped to 7-2 after his loss to the White Sox.

In four of his last five starts, Lester has given up at least four earned runs. The numbers from those starts are alarming -- 21 earned runs, 32 hits and 15 walks in a total of 23 innings.

He does have one gem in the bunch, his previous outing when he worked six shutout innings, allowing only three hits. But in that 14-2 win over Cleveland on May 25, Lester was handed a 7-0 lead before he threw his first pitch.

Then came Monday night's performance. Lester was charged with seven earned runs on eight hits in only 5 ⅔ innings. Lester, who has failed to last more than six innings in any of his last five starts, also walked four batters and hit Carlos Quentin with a pitch twice.

And that doesn't take into account the long counts that kept inflating Lester's pitch count, a total that reached 127 on his final pitch, which Alexei Ramirez blooped over the head of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez for a tie-breaking, two-run double and a 5-3 Chicago lead. Quentin's two-run single off Dan Wheeler saddled Lester with two more earned runs and boosted the White Sox' advantage to 7-3, effectively putting the game away.

It could be argued that Lester showed his mental toughness by keeping the Red Sox in the game at 3-3 into the sixth, and he was one pitch from keeping it a 3-3 game going into the bottom of the inning. While that may be true, even as good a pitcher as Lester can only work out of so many jams without getting burned.

"That ball wasn't hit hard," Francona said of Ramirez's hit, which was fair by only a few feet, "but if you give a team enough chances, that's what happens."

"I knew it wasn't going to get caught," Lester said. "It was a tweener. I hoped it would go foul. That at-bat, that was the only pitch I didn't execute. It was a flat cutter. When you get the ball up, they do what they're supposed to do with it.

"It was one of those nights I battled myself," added Lester, whose ERA jumped from 3.36 to 3.94. "I couldn't get in a rhythm. When I actually did get a fastball over the plate it was up."

Indeed, the two-run single by Chicago's A.J. Pierzynski in the first and the solo homer by Paul Konerko in the third came on fat fastballs that were up and over the heart of the plate.

By the fourth inning, Lester pretty much had abandoned his curveball and changeup, throwing almost exclusively cutters and four-seam fastballs.

"It was the only pitch I could throw for a strike," Lester said of his cutter. "I had no command of my fastball. I think I threw one curve for a strike. [The cutter] was the one pitch I could command so we went with it."

Francona, meanwhile, thinks he and Young have spotted a trend that needs a few alterations.

"His cutter is so good, but he's throwing a lot of them," Francona said. "We have to go back to establishing the fastball, curveball and change and then use the cutter to put people away."

Francona said Young will be working on the side with Lester, who was allowed to throw 127 pitches, his high for the season (114 was his previous top total) because of the extra days of rest he will be receiving.

"We'll take a couple of days and reload," Francona said. "When he's going good, he'll command better. He'll fix it."

Lester reacted with a shrug when told of his manager's remarks.

"I don't need to reinvent the wheel," Lester said. "I don't need to throw extended bullpens or anything. It's nice to get an extra day because we've been going pretty hard at it, but this was just one of those deals where I got the ball up and didn't have command.

"This game got away from me. I thought I didn't have a feel for anything. I tried to keep it at 3-3 leaving the sixth, but I just flat-out didn't get it done tonight."

Regardless of whether you look at the one-bad-game short term or the extended stretch of so-so performances, the Sox can only hope that Lester puts things back together by the time he steps on the mound again, in Yankee Stadium on June 7 for the start of a three-game series against New York.

Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

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