BOSTON -- On Aug. 20, 2010, Jon Lester made a start against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. He gave up five runs in the first inning and was gone three batters into the third after surrendering a three-run homer that gave the Jays a 9-0 lead. At the time, surrendering nine runs in two-plus innings represented the worst start of his career.
On Sunday, Jon Lester made a start against the Blue Jays at Fenway Park. He gave up five runs in the first inning and was gone two batters into the fifth after surrendering a two-run homer that gave the Jays an 11-4 lead.
The left-hander had established a new low.
What mattered most to Lester and the Boston Red Sox in 2010 was whether he could recover. The same notion applies in 2012, and if the similarities continue the next couple of months might be pretty special.
After Lester was rocked by the Jays in that 2010 start, he proceeded to go 6-0 with a 1.76 ERA over his next six outings, including four straight in which he struck out at least 10 batters. It was a run that launched him to the forefront of Cy Young Award discussions and helped keep an injury-plagued Boston team relevant in the final month of the season.
But in 2010, he was pitching just fine and the disaster against Toronto was more of an aberration. Sunday's dismal performance was just the latest in a series of un-Lester-like starts in 2012, which is quickly becoming a lost season for the lefty.
"Obviously it's embarrassing. I've let my team down a lot this year," Lester said after his ERA soared to 5.46. "It's hard for me to walk around this clubhouse and look guys in the eye right now. I'm not pitching well. I'm not doing my job. Guys scored seven runs today to win this game. Like I said, it's embarrassing. That's all I can say about it."
That's all Lester can say about it, but observers will be talking about his performance for days. Lester gave up a home run on the first pitch he threw to Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie. Then came a walk, a bunt single, an RBI double, an RBI groundout, another RBI double and a sacrifice bunt that scored a man from third, but only after a third strike to the previous hitter bounced away for a wild pitch.
Lester gave up a three-run homer to J.P. Arencibia and a solo homer to Rajai Davis in the second and a two-run shot in the fifth to Travis Snider, who entered a career .210 hitter with three home runs in 157 at-bats against left-handers.
Snider was the last hitter Lester faced. In a season in which not much has gone right for Lester, he failed to end on a good note.
"I want him to get better," manager Bobby Valentine said. "He's a great pitcher, a great guy and I feel this as much as he has. I know he's taking it tough."
Lester is 0-3 with a 15.32 ERA over his past three starts. The 11 earned runs allowed Sunday are a career high and the most allowed by a Red Sox pitcher in more than 29 years. The four home runs allowed are a career high. The five walks he allowed tie a career high.
The descent has been so noteworthy that it begs the question: Is Lester hurt?
Valentine said there is nothing physically wrong with Lester and that he has repeatedly asked his pitcher if he feels all right, as if he needs some sort of answer. Lester insists he feels fine and even said his mechanics are largely OK. Simply put, he's grooving too many pitches.
Case in point was the 95-mph fastball that Lawrie pounced on with a tone-setting smash over the Green Monster.
"Same thing we always do. We like to go in on first pitch," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said of an offering that caught too much of the plate. "Not too many guys like to swing first pitch so you get guys thinking in and you can throw anything you want away and get a quick out."
The first out did not come until Lester's pitch count was well into the 20s. He finished throwing 94 in four-plus innings, only 52 of them for strikes.
Still, as ugly as it has gotten, Lester's teammates are rallying around the two-time All-Star.
"We stick by him through thick and through thin," outfielder Cody Ross said. "We know how good he is. We believe in him. He'll get out of it. We just have to keep faith and keep confidence and keep grinding."
Despite the support, Lester is taking self-criticism to new levels.
"Nobody is going to feel sorry for me. I've got to go out and pitch, and I've got to pitch better," he said. "I'm not worried about my confidence. I'm not worried about my mechanics. I'm not worried about anything but trying to execute pitches, and I'm not doing that."
Lester had two strikeouts Sunday, which made him the third Red Sox left-hander ever to reach 100 Ks in five seasons. With six more he will become the eighth Boston pitcher to reach 1,000 with the club.
But those mini-milestones likely mean absolutely nothing to Lester. Not only are they pretty minor, but they are arriving in drips and drabs amid the worst slump of his career, a swoon that reached a new depth Sunday and left Lester itching for a turnaround, just as he was after getting knocked around by Toronto two years ago.
"It's getting old," he said. "Not a big fan of sucking, to put it lightly."