BALTIMORE -- The world, or at least that part of it inhabited by those who have an excessive fondness for the Boston Red Sox, appears to be divided along a very obvious fault line:
" Those who believe that Lester ain't what he used to be, and the past month bears witness to just how much he has slipped.
There doesn't seem to be much room in between when the topic is the Red Sox left-hander, who apparently forfeited all benefit of the doubt last season, when he lost his way after dominating for the better part of four seasons.
Even Denzel Washington's Wiley College debate team might have trouble taking the affirmative side and winning that argument.
Lester remains adamant, however, that if you don't see the light at the end of what has been an aggravating tunnel, you're not paying attention.
"If I throw the ball like I did today when I go into my next start against the Detroit Tigers, I like my chances," Lester said. There was conviction behind those words, regardless of how much his detractors try to drown them out.
On May 15, Lester was 6-0 with a 2.72 ERA, his place at the top of the Red Sox firmament fully restored. Opposing hitters were batting just .204 against him; he'd gone seven or more innings in five of his nine starts.
After giving up five runs on nine hits in Sunday's loss, Lester is 0-4 with a 7.20 ERA in his last six starts. He has allowed 47 hits and 18 walks in 35 innings over that span, with opponents hitting .324 (47-for-145).
Lester lasted five innings Sunday against the Orioles after going just 4 2/3 innings Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays. His overall ERA has climbed to 4.37; public confidence in him has dropped somewhere below the temperature of liquid hydrogen.
Still, he did a number of things right Sunday, registering eight strikeouts, walking no one, and inducing 22 swings and misses, the most he has ever had in five-plus big-league seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
He threw strikes too. After walking a career-high seven batters on Tuesday against the Rays, Lester threw 106 pitches, 75 of them for strikes. Of the 20 cutters he threw, 16 went for strikes. He had similarly high percentages on his changeup (14-of-19) and curveball (11-of-15). Fourteen of his 22 swings and misses came on those three pitches.
"That was probably the best cutter I've had all year. And as far as command of all four pitches, that's the best I've had all year," he said.
Lester offers no defense of his start against the Rays. He was awful and he knows it. But since that start, he worked with pitching coach Juan Nieves to correct the mechanical issues that went awry in the Trop.
"Obviously, the main adjustment was to throw strikes, and I did that today," he said. "The stuff was there. It wasn't for lack of stuff. I got back to being me."
Being "me," and being a winner, however, have not matched up now for more than a month. Lester gave up a long home run to Chris Davis with a man aboard in the third, when the Orioles scored three runs.
"I missed on the side of the plate I wanted to go," Lester said of Davis's 23rd home run, the most in the majors.
In all, Lester gave up five base hits, but it might be worth parsing them. Manny Machado was credited with a ground-ball double in the first inning on a ball that was clearly foul. Adam Jones broke his bat on a fly-ball RBI double that Jonny Gomes couldn't catch up with just before the Davis home run in the third.
Matt Wieters broke his bat on a base hit in the second, and Machado broke his on the ball he dropped in front of Jacoby Ellsbury that scored a run in the fifth and ultimately led to two when cutoff man Mike Carp made a wild throw.
"I wouldn't say they hit it hard," Lester said. "Four broken-bat hits."
To the anti-Lester crowd, of course, that sounds like excuse-making of the highest order. It's a game of results, and Lester has come up dry.
"It rests on my shoulders," he said, "to do a better job."
The Tigers loom next, with the Sox in Detroit next weekend. Lester says those broken-bat balls can't fall in every time. If he takes the same stuff into Comerica Park that he had in Camden Yards, he'd place a big bet on himself.
But he's working against a crowd that long ago cashed in on patience.