BOSTON -- John Farrell has gone to the barricades a few times for Alfredo Aceves since becoming manager of the Red Sox, citing his value as a swingman while others questioned his erratic behavior, which last season led to his suspension by manager Bobby Valentine.
But even for Farrell, the task of defending the mercurial pitcher is becoming an ever-increasing challenge.
Tuesday night, in the aftermath of a third inning that became an act of immolation, Aceves walking and balking and erring his way into six Oakland runs, Farrell hinted that there are limits to how far he can tolerate Aceves' unpredictability.
"It's hard to figure out what you're going to get out of Alfredo on a given day," Farrell said after a 13-0 loss to the A's played in godawful weather, a constant onslaught of cold drizzle sweeping across Fenway Park that finally brought an end to proceedings after seven innings and a 37-minute delay before umpires called it a night.
"It's varied. I will say this: He's healthy, he's got the ability to manipulate the ball, as we've seen, so you'd like to think there'd be more of a known commodity, especially in a starting role, when you've got five days to prepare for the next outing. His work between starts was consistent, his preparation before the game was consistent. Tonight wasn't one of his best performances."
By the numbers, this was his worst ever: Aceves allowed a career-high eight runs (seven earned) in 3⅓ innings, the shortest start of his career, giving up seven hits, walking four and committing two balks. Three of the walks, both balks, a sin of omission (he was late covering first base) and an error of commission (he threw wildly to home plate on the same play) all occurred in a 42-pitch, six-run third inning.
"There seemed to be a lack of focus," Farrell said. "Given the way Alfredo pitched for us, especially in his last outing against Cleveland, it wasn't a good night."
Aceves had gone five scoreless innings against the Indians last Thursday night before tiring in the sixth, when he gave up home runs to Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi. Farrell admitted he may have pushed Aceves deeper into the game than he was able to tolerate, Aceves throwing 106 pitches.
But in the first two innings Tuesday, Aceves showed no ill after-effects, striking out two of the first three batters he faced in an eight-pitch first and leaving two runners stranded in the second.
Aceves was distressed at the start of the second by the size of a hole dug out by Oakland pitcher Bartolo Colon, asking for the grounds crew to do some filling and patching. He got through the inning, but mentioned it as a factor in the third.
The third began with a four-pitch walk to the ninth man in the Oakland order, Eric Sogard. Coco Crisp followed with a ground-ball single up the middle and Aceves followed by walking the next two batters, John Jaso and Seth Smith, on full counts, the walk to Smith forcing in a run.
Jed Lowrie then took a called third strike, but Aceves hung a curveball to Brandon Moss, who lined it to center for a two-run single. With Josh Donaldson at the plate, Aceves committed his first balk, advancing Smith to third; Smith would score on Donaldson's sacrifice fly.
Josh Reddick then hit a smash to first baseman Mike Napoli, who made a terrific diving stop, but Aceves was late to cover, Reddick reached on what was scored an infield hit, and Aceves compounded his transgression by throwing wildly to the plate.
Reddick took third on Aceves' second balk of the inning and scored on a throwing error by Will Middlebrooks, the third baseman's first error this season. The A's led, 6-0, Smith's two-run homer in the fourth made it 8-0, and Aceves, wearing shirtsleeves on a night players on both teams were wearing ski masks, was lustily booed as he departed.
Aceves, who tends to remain in uniform long after he comes out of a game, had not yet changed when surrounded by reporters after his outing Tuesday, even with the benefit of a 37-minute rain delay. His response to the first question -- What happened? -- was obtuse.
"Nothing interesting," he said. "Just a game we lost."
And the third inning?
"Everything was fine," he said. "You can't do anything about walks. Today was a bad day, that's it. We've been having better days than today. We have to work to get better results."
He admitted to making a bad throw on the Napoli play, and being tardy to cover -- "Yeah, it was my fault." He didn't question the balk calls, but he also mentioned how Colon's hole bothered him and was in the back of his mind, and how his strike zone might have been smaller than Colon's, and called the weather a factor -- "Yeah, no doubt."
He also said that his inquisitors had little understanding of his job.
"You guys just see the errors, the runs, the hits, whatever," he said. "As a pitcher, man, it's not easy, you know."
This much can be understood. John Lackey will throw a bullpen session on Thursday, and if all goes the way the Sox expect, he will reclaim his spot in the rotation on Sunday, making Aceves odd man out. Lefties Craig Breslow and Franklin Morales are making progress on their rehabs. Daniel Bard is expected to be summoned back Wednesday (Steven Wright was optioned to Pawtucket after the game), and it's doubtful the Sox would do so unless they hoped it was to stay.
With every move, Aceves' spot on the roster becomes a little more tenuous. And Farrell, the man who has been in his corner, is beginning to express some doubt.