When the mention of "pitching problems" surfaced in recent weeks for the Red Sox, it basically had to do with the fact that two starters, albeit struggling starters, were lost to the disabled list. Everything else was just fine, and if the club could weather the sudden loss of depth, a quality staff could remain one.
Nobody ever gave a passing thought to Jon Lester, but another rocky outing on his part Monday night has at least drawn some attention to the usually dominant left-hander.
Lester gave up seven runs on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings of a 7-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox. He walked four, hit two batters and threw 127 pitches, the most he has thrown since his 2008 no-hitter. Again, in only 5 2/3 innings.
That's what happens when you are trying all night long to find a pitch that can work.
"Tonight I just didn't have a feel for anything. I stunk," Lester said. "There's no other way to put it."
With the loss, his first since April 12, Lester continued a streak of five straight starts that have lasted six innings or less. His ERA in that span is 6.52. If you take away his six scoreless innings five days ago in Cleveland, Lester's WHIP in that stretch is an unsightly 2.043. And that doesn't include the six men he has hit with pitches.
Lester leads the majors with seven hit batsmen this season.
Manager Terry Francona, who recently said he never worries about Lester as long as he is healthy, which he is, has two reasons to remain positive. One, Lester will have a full week off before he pitches next Tuesday. There are two off-days built into the schedule and the return of John Lackey to the rotation, allowing Francona to give a few guys some needed rest.
Also, in the eyes of the skipper, there may be a very correctable issue with his young lefty.
"He has got in a little bit of a mode where his cutter is so good, but he's throwing a lot of them," Francona said. "We've got to get him back to establishing fastball, changeup, breaking ball and using that cutter to put people away. It is a great pitch, but he's throwing a lot of it.
"Back to the drawing board."
Lester threw that pitch 43 times Monday, more than any other pitch. Entering the night, he had used his cutter 27.9 percent of the time. Even that was a sharp increase over his career norms, which are below 20 percent.
To Lester, that pitch, and its rate of use, has been necessary.
"It was the only pitch I could throw for strikes," he said. "I had to throw it. I had no command of my fastball. Threw a couple of decent changeups. It was really the only pitch I could command, so we had to use it."
When Lester is on his game, that pitch is so difficult to hit. But when every other pitch is giving him issues, and the cutter is catching too much of the plate, as was the case Monday, you have a recipe for disaster. It was all he could throw for strikes, but sometimes those strikes were a bit too fat.
Disaster struck in the sixth. Lester, who surrendered two runs in the first and a third on a Paul Konerko solo homer in the third, had two on and two outs in the sixth. The score was tied 3-3, and Juan Pierre was up.
Feeling confidence in just that one pitch, Lester walked Pierre in an at-bat that featured three cutters for balls. Lester's pitch count was at 122, a season high, but Francona stuck with him for one more hitter. The game was on the line, but Lester still could only rely on his favorite pitch.
Alexei Ramirez saw five straight cutters, and fought off the fifth into shallow right for a two-run double. It was not hit hard, but the pitch was hittable and the result proved to be the difference in the game. Lester called that particular cutter "flat."
"It's such a good pitch, normally it's an out pitch anyways," said Lester's catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "When you fall behind, you can't throw it over the middle."
The hit gave Chicago a 5-3 lead and ended Lester's night. Dan Wheeler came on and allowed both inherited runners to score, bumping Lester's ERA — which was at 2.33 after his first start this month — to 3.94.
Lester said he does not need "to reinvent the wheel," but admitted that taking a couple of extra days may allow him to figure out what's ailing him.
"It'll be nice to get an extra day," he said. "We've been going at it pretty hard these last couple of go-rounds, so it'll be nice. Hopefully, it's not going to go the other way. It's not going to be too much [rest]. Give the body a break and come back after it Tuesday and see what happens."
That start will be in New York against the rival Yankees. If Lester's struggles continue there, he might be linked even more to any discussions of pitching problems.
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