Jon Lester somehow isn't himself

BOSTON -- The results have not been good the past four games for Jon Lester.

Over that stretch, the Boston Red Sox left-hander has gone a mystifying 0-4 with a 4.39 ERA, including his five-plus-inning performance Wednesday night in a 9-1 loss to the lowly Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park.

Lester was not tagged for all the damage by the Indians. But he did surrender four runs, two of them earned, in his 98-pitch effort. He hurt himself with a wild throw on a seemingly simple bunt play that cost him the first run of the game and added extra pressure pitches early on the steamy night, likely contributing to the cramp in his left hamstring that hampered him in the fifth and helped send him to the showers two batters into the sixth.

So what's wrong with Lester, who has lost four consecutive starts for the first time in his career?

Manager Terry Francona tried to make an excuse for Lester's Wednesday night outing, citing the fact that Lester's wife delivered the couple's first child Saturday, costing the pitcher some sleep.

Thanks, but no thanks to that excuse, said Lester.

"I'm fine, not too concerned about that," Lester said.

There also is no concern that anything physical is causing Lester's problems, Wednesday night's cramped hamstring notwithstanding. That's the opinion of Lester and pitching coach John Farrell.

"I'm just in a funk right now," said Lester, whose record dropped to 11-7. "Weird things are happening. I have to just keep on working. Things can only get better."

"Within each game," Farrell said, "there is one inning where there has been either a miscue behind him or a hit, and he hasn't been able to shut it off. But there's nothing physical that is causing any one of [the losses]. There is nothing physical that is diminishing his stuff. He has pitched in some tight games where a pitch or two has had a bearing on the outcome."

Indeed, during the three games leading up to Wednesday night's setback, there were poor plays in the outfield that hurt Lester. Two starts ago in Seattle, for instance, Lester had a perfect game for 5 ⅓ innings before Eric Patterson dropped a line drive. The game quickly unraveled from there. Lester wound up getting tagged for five runs, four of them earned, in 7 ⅓ innings, and the Sox suffered a 5-1 loss.

It has been something different every start, agreed Lester and Farrell.

"To say there's one thing in his last four starts that has not resulted in dominant performances, the type we've come to expect from Jon, isn't true," Farrell said. "In Seattle to look at the linescore and see five runs is a real head-scratcher."

Then there was Wednesday night's game. Over the first two innings, Lester was dominant. It took him eight pitches and three minutes to set down the Indians in the first. He needed only 11 pitches and five minutes to subdue Cleveland in the second.

But in the third, a walk and a single put runners at first and second with none out. When Lou Marson's attempted sacrifice bunt bounced right to Lester, it looked as if an out at third base would be easy. But Lester threw the ball past Adrian Beltre, handing the Indians a run.

That, as it turned out, was the beginning of the end of Lester's effectiveness.

"Throwing the ball down the line took the momentum away from us and gave it to them," Lester said. "I thought I was able to control myself on that [throw], but I just made a bad play."

And while Lester managed to work out of the resulting second-and-third, none-out jam without permitting another run, his pitch count was elevated and his legs were getting heavy in the thick, 86-degree atmosphere.

In addition to the error, Lester's command began to go in the third. He was rushing, causing his body to get ahead of his arm, leading to fastballs up and away to right-handed hitters. He was bouncing fastballs and breaking balls. He clearly had no go-to pitch after the second inning.

Then in the fifth, with Cleveland ahead 3-0, a runner at second and two outs, Lester backed off the mound and bent over, trying to get a cramp out of his left hamstring. Francona and assistant trainer Greg Barajas went to the mound to check on him, but Lester insisted he was fine and Francona decided to leave him in the game.

In the sixth, after falling behind leadoff batter Jayson Nix 2-and-0, Francona and trainer Mike Reinold went to the mound. Again Lester insisted he was fine and could continue. But Nix hit his next pitch off the left-field foul pole, putting the Indians on top 4-0, and when Andy Marte followed with a ringing single to left, Lester finally was lifted.

"After the second inning, he had to battle," catcher Kevin Cash said. "He was kind of hit or miss with all of his pitches. It was one of those nights where he felt out of sync."

That happens, Lester said.

"That game in Seattle, I had four or five pitches, had power and was able to hit both sides of the plate," Lester said. "The last start [11 hits, 4 earned runs in 6 innings in a 6-5 loss to Detroit], I didn't have good stuff. Tonight's start was somewhere in between. You're going to have 20 or so starts where you have to battle. Those are the games you have to grind out.

"Tonight I didn't have a lot of luck. There were some balls that were hit just fair, one off [Beltre's] glove and then a ball Shelley Duncan hit down the line," an opposite-field RBI double in the fifth.

"I think I threw the ball better than the linescore shows. I'm throwing the ball the best I can. You're going to have those starts. In five days, I'll be back out there," Lester said.

He hopes with better results, as he'll be facing the Yankees on Monday in New York as the Red Sox try to play catch-up in the standings.