The Red Sox were supposed to cruise into Sunday like a family of four driving into a much-needed rest stop filled with cheap, tasty snacks and a clean restroom, eager to get off this rocky road. They had Jon Lester on the mound, a big-game pitcher on a roll and the one dependable arm on the staff.
There were tough miles ahead, but Sunday seemed like a great opportunity to get a win, take a deep breath and plot a future course.
Of course, James Shields was on the mound for Tampa Bay, so nothing would come easy, but the difference between a surging Lester and the rest of Boston's current rotation is so striking that this had to be the day where things settled down.
Red Sox starters had thrown no more than five innings in four straight starts. In fact, the only starter to go longer than five innings over the previous seven starts was Lester, who lasted seven in the team's one win on the road trip Tuesday in Toronto. Not only was there reason to believe that Lester would buck the trend, there was an absolute need for it.
It turns out that the rest stop had shoddy plumbing and was out of Ring Dings. It did nothing for the Red Sox, and the rocky road carries them back to Boston in need of some home cooking.
Lester suffered through perhaps his worst start of the year and didn't receive much help from his teammates in a 9-1 loss to the Rays. He had a 43-pitch first inning, a 26-pitch second and was done after just four, his shortest start of the year not related to an injury.
All this on the day he was needed most.
"My responsibility is to go out and pitch and try to go deep into games," Lester said. "It doesn't matter what happens, like I've said before, what happens the day before. I'm trying to pitch my game and go deep into games. Obviously, today that didn't go my way."
The result cuts Boston's lead in the wild card race to just 3 1/2 games over Tampa Bay. The Sox have 16 games left. The Rays have 17. Four of those games are against each other Thursday through Sunday in Fenway Park.
At some point in that series, Lester will get a start. With Josh Beckett and Erik Bedard on the mend, we have no clue what the rest of the series will look like. There may be another need to lean heavily on Lester once again to stop the bleeding. If he looks anything like he did Sunday, that will not happen.
Lester loaded the bases right off the bat on two singles and a walk. A base hit by Ben Zobrist made it 2-0 Tampa Bay before Lester could record an out. Nobody knew at the time that the Rays would not need another run, but it was a realistic scenario given the fact that Shields was on the other end.
Tampa Bay certainly never felt that way. That's why it worked over Lester in the second, forcing him to navigate around a single and a walk. That’s why it answered Boston's only run of the game in the third with a Johnny Damon triple and a Sean Rodriguez RBI double. That's why it put two more on in the fourth, running Lester's pitch count into triple digits and forcing Terry Francona to remove his star lefty long before he ever wanted to.
"Yeah, from the very first inning he wasn't commanding like he usually does," Francona said. "A lot of deep counts. Some of the balls didn't have a lot of finish to them. They really made him work and they made him earn everything he got. When he throws 110 pitches in four innings, that's a pretty good indication that's a tough day for him."
And that tough day ends a very, very tough week that sees the Red Sox forge ahead with an uncertain rotation and a shrinking lead in the wild card race. As it pulls out into traffic, one wonders where the next rest stop will be.
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