Commentary

Jon Lester struggling, not shaken

Despite season-long slump, Red Sox lefty confident things will turn around

Updated: July 19, 2012, 10:29 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- They are still at least two weeks away from having the starting lineup Bobby Valentine envisioned this season, now that David Ortiz has become the latest Red Sox player to land on the disabled list.

But even with Dustin Pedroia cooling his heels for one more night before he comes back, the possibilities for a Red Sox revival were there for all to see Wednesday -- Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford creating at the top of the lineup, Cody Ross blasting matching three-run home runs, Adrian Gonzalez going deep for the second time in three games, shutdown pitching by Felix Doubront and the Sox bullpen.

Lester We get paid a lot of money. I understand that. But just because we get paid a lot of money doesn't mean we don't care. This kills me. It's tough. I hate losing.

-- Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester

How many people watching were thinking to themselves, if only Jon Lester could pitch like seasons past, October would be more than just a fantasy?

Guaranteed there was at least one -- Jon Lester.

In a wide-ranging interview before Wednesday's 10-1 win, the Red Sox left-hander touched upon a number of topics -- his frustration with his performance, the perception that he is unhappy, the possibility of being traded, the makeup of the team's clubhouse, the home run that Kevin Youkilis hit off him Tuesday night, and his conviction that with a potential 13 starts left before the end of the season, there is still time for him to be the stopper the team so desperately needs him to be.

"You think I'm happy right now?" Lester said. "You think I like coming to the park with almost a 5 ERA (4.80) next to my name, with a 5-7 record? I mean, who would be happy?

"You think last night me coming off the field getting booed was fun? C'mon, who would want to do that? It's much cooler for me to walk off the field to a standing ovation after pitching my ass off. I don't want that. Do they have the right to boo? Absolutely. But I don't want that.

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"It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing for my wife to be sitting in the stands to hear that. I'm embarrassed for her. I'm embarrassed what she has to hear in the stands. It's not fun.

"That's not what I want to do. I don't want to show up at the park and go, '[Expletive], I'm going to give up seven runs in four innings and call it a day, then go home and count my money because that's all that matters."'

Lester stressed, however, that there is a difference in being unhappy with his performance and being unhappy about playing here. There have been a number of reports that Lester might be so unhappy he'd welcome a trade.

"Am I happy in Boston?" Lester said. "Yeah, I've got a house here, my family loves it here, I love taking my kid [son Hudson] here. That's two different things. If I'm sitting right now with David Price numbers and said I was not happy, then yeah, maybe it's about Boston. But who in this clubhouse is happy with losing?"

It would seem highly unlikely that they would do so, but Lester isn't ruling out the possibility that the Red Sox could trade him before the July 31 trading deadline. He even suggested that the front office could be swayed by public debate on the topic.

"The Red Sox believe what's written," he said. "If it's written that I should be traded, more times than not that's what ends up happening. Look at the people who've gotten traded around here. It's not their doing.

"It's not up to me. One thing I know in baseball is you should never be comfortable where you are. It doesn't matter who you are. It's a business. If I got traded tomorrow, no hard feelings, it's a business.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Jim Davis/Getty ImagesJon Lester isn't pleased with his 5-7 record and 4.80 ERA, but says he's happy in Boston.

"Would I be sad? Yeah. Like I said, we've got a house here, we made a lot of good friends here, we just started a foundation here. It'd be tough. It'd be tough on my family, but it is what it is. It's like being transferred in a business - -you've got to go where they tell you."

With Youkilis flourishing since his trade to the Chicago White Sox on June 24, Lester gave a multilayered answer when asked if he thought he might profit from a change of scenery.

"That's one of those questions you don't know until it happens or doesn't happen," he said. "I think if you asked Youk that he'd say the same thing. Hey, I love it here, but I don't know if a change of scenery is good. I haven't had a change of scenery. I think when you leave Boston, unless you go to a New York or Chicago, it can't do anything but help you.

"This is a tough place to play, you know? I love playing here because it makes people accountable. It makes you accountable for what you do. There's no excuses here. If you pitch like [expletive], you can't come in and say, 'Aw, the mound's a little wet' because you've got Dave (Mellor, the groundskeeper) down there saying, 'No, it wasn't.' This place makes you accountable. I love that about this place because I'm an accountable person. I always have been. My dad has ingrained that in me: Be accountable.

"I love that part about this place, but I think if you go from here to, I don't know, Texas, it would probably be easier to play. You don't have to worry about other things. You just go out and play."

What makes Boston such a tough place to play, Lester said, is less failure than the burden of expectations that comes with success, something Ortiz has alluded to as well on many occasions. When asked if he thought he could hit 40 home runs this season, Ortiz half-jokingly said he didn't want to because then people would expect him to do so every year, and anything less would be viewed as an off-year.

"You come up here," Lester said, "and you say, 'I'm a part of the Red Sox organization, the Red Sox. It's a tough place to play, but it's all about baseball, so let's go out and play and see what happens.' Then a couple of years later you have expectations. You have people that rely on you to do the same thing every year that you did the year before.

"Then it becomes a little tougher. Then you have to figure out who you are as a person, figure out who you are as a man: Am I this person or that person? I know looking back at this year, I'm not this person. This isn't me as a pitcher. I stink, but I've got to keep working to figure out what's going to change it. I've got to keep working."

Lester is well compensated -- he signed a five-year, $30 million deal after the 2008 season, though at $7.625 million this season and $11.625 million in 2013 ($13 million option in 2014), he represents a relative bargain given where the market for starting pitching has gone. San Francisco's Matt Cain, who is nine months younger than Lester, just signed an eight-year, $139.75 million contract, though he has yet to win as many as 15 games in a season, a number Lester has eclipsed in each of the last four seasons.

So he isn't looking for sympathy: "We play a game, we get paid for it, we get to be on TV, kids want to be us, sign autographs, the whole deal. I can't sit here and complain. It's not fair to them."

But last week during the All-Star break, he used his Twitter account to respond to some of the harsher criticisms he has heard.

"It always comes back to money," he said. "Do you honestly think everybody in this room is really happy with where we're at? That's what I don't get, that's what I don't understand. It always goes back to what guys are making. 'These million-dollar babies are whining, they don't care.'

"Yeah, we get paid a lot of money. I understand that. But just because we get paid a lot of money doesn't mean we don't care. This kills me. It's tough. I hate losing. I hate getting beat. I'm not used to it. It's something I've never done in my life. Maybe this is a year that's going to strengthen me and make me a better pitcher in the future.

"Everybody in this room cares. Everybody in this room wants to win a World Series. We don't show up in spring training and say, 'It looks like we suck again, we're just going to see where it goes.' No, every year our goal is to go to the playoffs and win the World Series. But sometimes you have injuries, sometimes you have setbacks, sometimes you don't perform the way you should, and that's part of baseball."

Lester remains baffled as to why this season has been such a struggle. He insists he is healthy. There have been times he has made good pitches and they've been hit. There have been times he has made awful pitches, like the one he made to Youkilis that his former teammate hit over the Monster for a three-run home run Tuesday night. The home run came on a full-count pitch and first base open, after Lester had fallen behind, 3 and 0, leading some to question why he pitched to Youkilis at all.

"I was telling Mac [pitching coach Bob McClure] I felt like I was in a good place," Lester said. "I know [Youkilis] is going to be patient. I know I'm probably going to get two strikes with more middle pitches than trying to be perfect. The 3-2 pitch, I told Mac, look, I knew what I was doing before I threw the ball. I don't have to be perfect, I can throw a ball down and away. If he swings, he swings. If it's a ball, it's a ball."'

Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia set up for a pitch down and away. Lester left the pitch right over the middle, and Youkilis crushed it.

"That's kind of where most of my frustration is coming in," Lester said. "I feel like my process is there. I feel like I'm putting myself in a position to succeed before every pitch, and then when I go to do it, I don't. Whatever that is, I don't know. That's the frustrating part.

"I knew what I was doing on that particular pitch. I knew I had a base open. I didn't care who was on deck. I didn't care if it was Reggie Jackson or Barry Bonds. I didn't care. I could start new. So yeah, I had an idea, I had a plan, I just didn't execute my plan. That's the frustrating thing. My plans are there, my ideas are there, me and Salty's pitch selections are there. We're mixing and matching first pitches, we're changing up sequences, we're changing up different things."

Lester has endured slumps before. "But a seven-month stretch?" he said. "That's where it's getting old.

"If baseball was that easy to fix when you're not going right, you wouldn't see slumps. My biggest frustration is when people think we're robots. We're going to have bad games. We're going to have bad seasons. Do we want them? No, I hate this. You know? I hate this. I don't want to show up every day and suck. C'mon. I don't know what other way to say it. I don't want to be bad. I want to be good. It's much better to be good."

Lester is on his third pitching coach in the last three seasons. He came up with John Farrell, Curt Young was pitching coach in 2011, and McClure this season. Obviously, Lester said, Farrell knew him longest and thus knew him best.

"I loved Curt Young," he said, "but he probably is better with a younger pitching staff like in Oakland. And I think Mac has done a great job learning us on the fly.

"The thing about baseball is all you can control is to be as prepared as you can. In basketball, you can shoot a million shots a day, you get better at it, you see results immediately. In baseball, I can't throw a million throws; I wouldn't be able to pitch on Sunday. When you need to make adjustments, when you need to alter things and work on things, you have to pick and choose. During the season is a hard time to make adjustments."

There is only one place that Lester places responsibility for his performance.

"You don't get this far in your career without having your own pitching coach inside you," he said. "As far as me succeeding, it's not [McClure's] responsibility. It's my responsibility. I don't blame him for me pitching bad. That's stupid. I blame myself. I don't blame Salty for pitching bad. It's all on me."

Lester began this season hoping not only to erase the memory of last September's 7-20 collapse, but also to help change the perception of a clubhouse run amok last year. He owned up to his own mistakes, though he insists the situation was never as bad as it was portrayed publicly, and was dismayed a few weeks ago when the Sox clubhouse was characterized as "toxic."

"I've said it to [GM] Ben [Cherrington] I don't know how many times, I've said it to outside people, that this is the best clubhouse I've been in since I've been in the Red Sox organization. We've got some of the best guys, not only in the clubhouse, but on-the-field guys.

"Every single guy cares, every single guy busts their ass every night, every guy grinds out at-bats. It doesn't matter if it's Mauro Gomez or if its Pedro Ciriaco or if it's Will (Middlebrooks) or Adrian (Gonzalez) or David. Pedey goes down, Ciriaco comes up. Look what's he done -- he's filled his shoes. He's done a great job. Obviously we want Pedroia back in the lineup, but when you have guys who do that, that just makes our clubhouse so much better.

"I think that's what caught everybody so off guard here, that article about being toxic. This clubhouse is great."

As for manager Bobby Valentine? "Not everybody in this clubhouse is going to get along with the manager," he said. "That's the way it is. That's baseball. That's business. Not everybody gets along with their boss. That's how it is."

Lester said that it's only natural that the starting pitchers would spend most of their time together, but said he doesn't hesitate to seek counsel from other precincts. He tries to avoid talking about the game to his wife or his parents.

"I don't want my dad to be my coach," he said. "I just talked to him today. He's my dad. He said, 'Hey, are you healthy, are you OK?' That's all that matters. And obviously his next question is 'How's Hudson?' My dad's my dad, my mom's my mom, my wife's my wife. That's more important than baseball. When I'm here, this is important, to work hard and prepare to pitch."

And in here, he said, while he may turn to his fellow pitchers, it doesn't stop there.

"I don't feel like I have a clique here where I only hang out with certain people," he said. "I can go to talk to Pedey or Cody (Ross) or (Nick) Punto. I can go vent to Shop (Kelly Shoppach) or Salty. Mac. It doesn't matter. I don't discriminate when it comes to that.

"Last night, when I was sitting at my locker icing, pissed off at the world, David brings my son into the clubhouse. It puts things in perspective."

And the one thing that Lester hasn't lost sight of, he said, is his track record of success in the big leagues. It is why, he said, he has not allowed his frustration to taint his confidence. It is why, he believes, that he can still be a difference maker in the season's last 10 weeks.

"I've got to keep believing," he said. "I've won 15 games every year for the last four seasons for a reason. It's not because I got lucky. I pitched pretty well. I've just got to keep going back to that. I can't sit here and go, woe is me. Nobody gives a [expletive] about that.

"I've got to worry about my start Sunday. I can't worry about winning five, six, seven, eight, nine starts in a row. It'd be great for this team if every game I pitch I get a no-decision and we win. Winning for this team is more important than what goes next to my name.

"Obviously, you put the work in, you want those wins next to your name. But I know our record as a team when I pitch is not very good. That's a reflection of how I pitched. If I can get that record to be better, that's more important. That's ultimately how we'll get to the playoffs, and on from there."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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