Lester lets up
Kazmir outpitches fellow lefthander
The symmetry of last night's starting pitchers made the billing impossible to resist. Jon Lester and Scott Kazmir are both 25, both lefthanded, and both players their franchises consider bedrock. Lester and Kazmir, who met in the season's second game, figure to shape baseball's best burgeoning rivalry for years. It was a pitching duel fit for a boxing poster.
But Lester vs. Kazmir shouldn't have been a fair fight. No place brought Lester more comfort last season than Fenway Park. No team brought Kazmir more distress than the Red Sox.
However, in a 7-2 Rays victory, Kazmir and Lester transposed those story lines. Kazmir danced around potential trouble. Lester unraveled after an untouchable start. Boston's offense, hailed for its balance after Opening Day, stranded nine runners and ensured the 37,552 at Fenway Park would have to wait at least until Lester's second start for him to capture the form that made him a popular preseason Cy Young pick.
"I just didn't do a good job keeping the team in the game tonight," Lester said. "I don't know if I tried to nitpick a little too much. I don't know if I wasn't aggressive enough later in the game or what."
The Red Sox had a chance to leap back into the game in the eighth after Jason Bay's double into the left-field corner drove in a run and Mike Lowell loaded the bases when a pitch thudded into his left shoulder. Grant Balfour, fresh from the bullpen, rifled six fastballs at Jed Lowrie, who swung through the last 94-mile-per-hour heater. Lowrie flipped the bat. Three base runners skulked toward their positions.
Lester had not lost at Fenway for 16 regular-season starts, since one year ago today. His disappointing finish last night belied the first moments of his season. Lester faced eight batters in the first two innings. Five struck out. His curveball dropped like a broken elevator down the shaft. Rays batters, made vulnerable by Lester's curve, swung at his fastball only after it had sped by them.
Lester needed 39 pitches to endure the first two innings, but the high pitch count seemed a minor blemish. He struck out the side in the second, the Rays whiffing at curves in the dirt and fastballs at the letters. Kazmir's pitch count soared to 58 after three, but he, too, settled into a rhythm. The scoreboard still showed binary code - nothing but 1s and 0s - until the fifth inning.
With the game tied at 1, Lester started the inning by walking Gabe Kapler - the Gabe Kapler who once played for the Red Sox and managed the Greenville Drive, a Sox Single A team, in 2007. Akinori Iwamura sent him to third with a clinical hit-and-run.
With no outs, and the duel between Lester and Kazmir delivering on expectations, manager Joe Maddon decided the Rays should manufacture the lead. With Jason Bartlett batting, Maddon called a safety squeeze.
Bartlett laid down Lester's first pitch, a dribbler that inched onto the infield grass. Jason Varitek walked in front of the plate as Lester charged toward the ball, pointing to first to direct Lester where to throw because Kapler's dash from third was too fast. But Lester scooped the ball and flipped it to Varitek, who was nonplussed while he caught the toss and Kapler ran behind him to score the go-ahead run.
Bartlett runs well, and the delicate bunt may have landed him at first regardless of where Lester threw the ball. Still, "that's my fault," Lester said. "I thought because he backed away he was going to cover home. It's a hell of a bunt. I guess it's just bad luck more than anything."
Even after Lester squandered a potential out, then watched Carl Crawford bloop an excuse-me single to left, he hunkered. He threw a changeup - the pitch he honed during the spring - and induced a double play from Evan Longoria that scored a run.
The Red Sox were still within 3-1. Up came Carlos Peña. The Haverhill native struck out in his first five plate appearances of the season, and he was 0 for 6 when he walked to home plate in the fifth. Lester started him with three balls and a strike.
"He was one pitch away," Varitek said.
Lester tried to sneak a cutter past Peña. "He pretty [well] knows what's coming," Lester said. "We're not going to screw around with him there. Threw it middle, middle" - over the plate's heart and at Peña's belt. Peña unleashed a vicious swing and then posed for a moment, sending the ball through the pitch-black night and into the first row above the triangle. A taut game had suddenly become a 5-1 beating.
"It was pretty deflating," Lester said.
Lester survived the fifth, but he produced a line that would have ranked among his worst last year: five innings, eight hits, five runs, two walks, five strikeouts. After his torrid start, Lester didn't strike out a batter in his last three innings.
While Lester suddenly fizzled, Kazmir overcame his escalating pitch count by stranding a torrent of runners. The Sox slapped five hits off Kazmir and walked three times in six innings. But only one (Dustin Pedroia) of the eight runners advanced past second, and only one of the hits - a double by Pedroia - went for extra bases.
Kazmir's final inning demonstrated his grit. Kevin Youkilis and Rocco Baldelli ripped consecutive one-out singles. Bay worked a full count before watching strike three graze the outside corner. Lowell grounded Kazmir's 111th pitch to third, and Kazmir, one last time, had escaped.
Exiting may have seemed the safest thing for Kazmir. He started six times against the Red Sox last season, playoffs included, and saw the sixth inning only twice. The Red Sox smashed nine home runs off Kazmir, whose ERA against Boston was 7.31. Against every other team, it was 2.61.
"He was pretty effectively wild, and he made some pitches," Lowell said. "He's got good stuff, too. He's got a good fastball that pops out of his hand. It's not like he was lucky."
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com.