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Lester lets loose following another loss

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / May 16, 2009
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SEATTLE - Jon Lester's start last night unraveled like most of his outings this season, one pitch or play snowballing into another wasted ballgame. He is baffled and frustrated at the way his season has started. He expects more of himself, and he vowed last night, after his fourth loss of the year, that things will change.

The result of Lester's outing - five runs in 5 2/3 innings - hinged mainly on his fielding, not his pitching. He allowed two home runs, both to Ichiro Suzuki on "fastball right down the middle, both times," he said. But the play that led to another bitter night was a ball that bounced less than 60 feet back to him.

He still stewed about that play more than 90 minutes after his night ended, but he saved his most potent tirade for how he feels about his season - his 2-4 record, his 6.51 ERA - and how he thinks he can change it.

"I really don't know what to say, other than it's been [expletive]," Lester said. "I bust my [behind] every five days to go out and perform, and I'm not performing right now. I'm letting the team down. There's no reason that we should not have won that game after four runs in the first three innings. It's inexcusable.

"With that being said, I can promise you that there hasn't been a pitcher that's worked harder than I have from the beginning of the season, and there won't be a pitcher for the remainder of the season that will work as hard as I will to get back to where I've been in the past. I don't think we're far. I think it's just little things right now that are screwing up my outings. Hopefully, no, not hopefully, it will turn around. It will turn around here in the future."

Lester, who grew up in nearby Tacoma, might have been talking about how his season turned around if not for one play in the sixth inning. With men on first and second and one out, Yuniesky Betancourt tapped a ball back to him. He turned around, expecting to see Julio Lugo at second base. But Lugo had charged to the ball, leaving Dustin Pedroia covering.

Lester pumped at Pedroia, who had beaten base runner Kenji Johjima to the bag by a wide margin. But Lester didn't release the ball and settled for an out at first.

"I screwed the play up," Lester said. "I turned around expecting Lugo to be there, and he wasn't because he was coming in to get the ball. For some reason, it screwed me up. I don't know why. We work on that play 100 times during spring training to prepare for situations like that. If I throw that ball to second, we get a double play, it's a completely different ballgame."

But Lester was "still one pitch away," he said. He said the previous play did not affect him, but he endured perhaps his worst sequence of the night. He left a curveball up to Franklin Gutierrez, who pummeled a single to center, scoring a pair of runs and cutting the Red Sox' lead to 4-3. Ichiro came up next. Lester's heater down the pipe ended up in the first row of the right-field seats.

Lester's night was over. He sat in the Red Sox' dugout, chin on his hand as he stared blankly out to the field. Lester finished last season with a .771 winning percentage, the best in the modern era for a pitcher with at least 59 starts. Lester pitched at least seven innings in 16 starts last season. He's done it twice in eight starts this season.

"There will not be anybody in this profession that will work harder than I will to get back to where I was last year," Lester said. "I don't think I'm far. It's not like I feel like I'm going out there and throwing righthanded. At times I feel good and feel like I'm executing pitches. It's just, it seems like the big innings I need to make a pitch, I'm not doing it right now.

"Whether that be conditioning, whether it be focus, whether it be bullpen work, whatever it may be, I'm going to continue to work hard and get to that point to where I do execute those pitches."

Lester experienced similar struggles at the beginning of last season. He did not become one of the best pitchers in the game until late last year. That gives Lester little solace.

"I don't know if I'm a slow starter," he said. "But I think that's just kind of an excuse. I'm not going to sit here and give you guys excuses on why I'm not throwing the ball well. Right now, I'm not throwing the ball well. Whether it's May or whether it's September, it's terrible outings and terrible executions of pitches."

Lester is not alone among scuffling Sox hurlers. Three of the five highest ERAs among qualifying American League pitchers belong to Red Sox starters. Lester, now at 6.51, ranks third worst, behind only Gavin Floyd of the White Sox (7.32) and Brad Penny (6.69). Josh Beckett (6.42) is fifth worst.

"It seems like every outing is something different," Lester said. "But on a scale, they're small things that turn out to be big things. I need to fix those mistakes as best I can."

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