BOSTON -- Coming off a sweep that contained a pair of walk-off wins, the Boston Red Sox were rolling entering Friday’s series opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The same could be said for left-hander Jon Lester, who was looking to follow up one of his best starts of the season Sunday in Baltimore.
In a season that has seen Lester struggle to find consistency, he fell flat again.
“It’s just unacceptable,” Lester said to close a five-minute session with reporters after he gave up six runs on a season-high 11 hits in 4 1/3 innings -- his shortest start of the year -- of a 7-6 loss to Arizona.
At the heart of the “unacceptable” effort was Lester’s inability to keep the ball down -- a point he harped on, with good reason. The southpaw got just two outs on the ground against the Diamondbacks after recording eight versus the Orioles. And several of those balls lifted into the sky found paydirt, either in the Monster seats or in a gap somewhere -- Arizona had five doubles and a home run before chasing Lester with a 6-4 lead in the fifth.
“It was inconsistent location within the strike zone,” manager John Farrell said. “He didn’t create any additional issues by issuing any walks. It was more him trying to go away from some right-handers that he pulled the ball back to the middle of the plate, or inner-third to [Cody] Ross, to [Martin] Prado. He wasn’t sharp to his arm side, as he’s been the last couple of times out.”
Indeed, Lester was not wild. He recorded six strikeouts against zero walks and now has 22 punchouts with just two free passes since the All-Star break. But when the strikes are flat, straight and up in the zone, you’re playing with fire.
Lester was from the start.
Aaron Hill, who entered the game 2-for-32 lifetime against Lester, singled with one out in the first and Paul Goldschmidt followed by tattooing a changeup over the Monster to make it 2-0. There was a double by Ross later in the frame, two singles in the second, and a double and a single in the third as the hits began to mount.
Lester had a 1-2-3 fourth, which included two strikeouts, and carried a 4-3 advantage into the fifth with a chance to establish himself against the Arizona hitters and get the game into the later frames with Boston on top. However, Hill led off with a double, and Prado and Ross had a pair of two-baggers with one out. All three doubles in the frame were liners into the left-center field gap, almost mirror images of one another. A base hit by Jason Kubel then made it 6-4 and Lester left to a combination of boos and sympathetic applause.
There was no pity party after the game.
“Fastball was up, cutter was up, everything, changeup was up,” Lester said. “The adjustments don’t matter if you don’t get the ball down in the zone. There were a lot of fly balls hit tonight that, past three or four starts, haven’t been the case. I’ve been keeping the ball down. The ball was just elevated. That’s what they do when you elevate.”
Lester especially felt bad about his effort given the fact that the bullpen had to eat up eight innings two nights ago and Stephen Wright went three frames on the heels of a rocky outing by Ryan Dempster on Thursday.
“Just unacceptable, especially after last night,” Lester said. “I’ve got to pick up [Dempster], pick up our bullpen. Obviously I didn’t do that. It’s my fault and I’ve got to do a better job of going deeper into games. Finding a way, that’s what it comes down to. Find a way to go deeper into the game.”
Lester has struggled with that for much of the season. He has pitched more than seven innings just once, that being a complete-game one-hit shutout against Toronto that came amid the southpaw’s 6-0 start. Six solid innings is nice to get every fifth day, but the occasional eight-inning gem is something you'd like to see from one of your stalwarts, or at least one of those expected to be a stalwart.
On Friday night, Lester was nowhere near that status, and not close to replicating the solid stuff he had shown since the break. While quick to take the blame, he was also quick to express confidence that nothing has been lost.
“Absolutely. It’s not like I need to reinvent any type of wheel or come out throwing right-handed or anything,” he said. “It’s pretty simple. Keep the ball down. Do that, it’s a different story tonight.”