Mariners 5, Red Sox 1

It all falls apart for Lester, Red Sox

Mariners, error spoil perfect start

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / July 25, 2010

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SEATTLE — As Jon Lester walked off the mound at the end of the evening, leaving his teammates three outs to redeem themselves, his head remained down until he reached the steps, when he took his glove and slammed it on the bench. The disappointment and anger was understandable, the game having spiraled from brilliance to ERA-expanding frustration.

Not only had Lester exceeded his career high with 13 strikeouts, but he had allowed the Mariners just four hits over 7 2/3 innings. And he could be excused for being slightly off his game in an at-bat that followed one of the most disappointing moments a starter can experience. He allowed a two-run home run to Michael Saunders after Eric Patterson literally dropped the ball with a perfect game on the line.

“Off the bat, saw it well, probably overran it a little bit knowing that I had to cover some extra ground,’’ said Patterson, who ended Lester’s unblemished game with one out in the sixth. “No excuses. It doesn’t matter what the situation was. That ball’s got to be caught. Seemed to turn the momentum in the game, which was kind of unfortunate.’’

So, on a night that it appeared early as if the Red Sox might grab an easy win from Seattle, they instead suffered a 5-1 loss, a dispiriting outcome given what could have been. While Lester ended up allowing five runs (four earned), that was hardly the way it seemed. It was hardly the way he pitched, at least for the first seven innings. But a squeeze bunt changed the complexion of the game quickly.

“That’s as good of stuff as we’ve seen all year,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “The outcome’s a shame. He pitched better than the line score will show, for sure. He had a perfect game going for half the game. We drop a fly ball, and then he hung a breaking ball. Probably the first bad pitch he threw all night.’’

Lester didn’t walk a batter until there were two outs in the eighth inning, as his manager left him in the game to throw 124 pitches. But that wasn’t the case at the beginning.

Everything was working for Lester. Everything.

“He was outstanding, he brought no-hit stuff to the table,’’ catcher Kevin Cash said. “[He had] everything. There wasn’t one pitch, his changeup was as good as I’ve ever seen. The only pitch I kind of stayed away from was his two-seam fastball. I don’t think we needed to go to it. He was just dotting fastballs everywhere, backdoor curveball was good. Just consistently pounding the zone.’’

And then, in the middle of the perfection, a moment of true imperfection. With one out in the sixth inning, Jack Wilson sliced a drive into the outfield, the first ball hit in the air by the Mariners all game, that was moving away from Patterson. Hardly the Sox’ first, second or third choice for the position, Patterson had the baseball in his sights and readied for the catch. He wasn’t ready enough.

The ball bounced off his glove, and Wilson arrived at second base. Lester’s no-hitter was intact, but his perfect game vanished in the space of an E-8.

“From my standpoint, it just seemed like from that play on the momentum kind of switched over in their favor,’’ Patterson said. “Next guy comes up, puts them ahead. It’s kind of the ballgame after that. It’s definitely frustrating.’’

Perfect game gone, the author of a 2008 no-hitter stood in to face the Mariners’ No. 9 batter. Saunders, hitting just .230 coming into the game, then launched a curveball into the right-field seats. In the span of two batters, not only was the perfect game gone, not only was the no-hitter gone, but the lead had disappeared for the Red Sox. The Mariners led, 2-1, their two-run shot besting the solo home run that David Ortiz had hit in the fourth.

“He hadn’t pitched out of the stretch, but no,’’ Francona said, when asked if the error took Lester out of his rhythm. “He just threw a breaking ball that caught too much of the plate.’’

“I hung a curveball to a guy that I shouldn’t have,’’ Lester said. “He made a good swing on it, hit it out.’’

And the Sox couldn’t do anything offensively after Ortiz’ home run.

“Not enough,’’ Francona said. “David Pauley, like he can, he kept the ball down and changed speeds to the lefties. He threw in enough to open the plate up, keep everybody honest. He really pitched well.’’

As Ortiz said, “We need to produce more man. Our offense has been kind of slow lately. We haven’t been able to get that going. The other night we scored six runs, and we need to try to go back to that, to give our pitching more comfortable situations.’’

Before Patterson’s error, Lester had gotten outs in two ways: strikeouts and groundouts. There were no solid chances, no serious contact, just Mariner after Mariner turning back to the dugout in defeat. He was so precise that, through 5 1/3 innings, he had thrown first-pitch strikes to 12 of 16 hitters. He had 10 strikeouts in that span, and the makings of a stellar outing.

Similar magic had imbued him May 19, 2008, when the Royals succumbed to his pitches one after another over nine innings.

But that wasn’t quite the case in that eight inning last night. After Milton Bradley led off with a triple, Lester struck out his 13th batter of the night. But with one out, the Mariners tried a squeeze, a play the Sox had seen coming. That was why John Farrell stood at the mound with Wilson waiting to bat. It didn’t matter. Wilson got his bat on a high fastball and dropped a bunt toward the mound, allowing Bradley to score easily. Then Saunders singled off Lester’s foot, Ichiro Suzuki walked, Chone Figgins doubled, and Lester was done.

“Tip your hat to Jack Wilson,’’ Cash said. “We were right on it. We took a chance up and in the first pitch. We had a good feeling maybe they were going to try it. Jon made the pitch, and Jack did a heck of a job getting the ball down. That’s not easy to do at 95 miles an hour.’’

Nor was it easy to hit Lester for most of the night. It didn’t last. Neither did the lead. But there seemed to be the sense that, even if Lester didn’t do it last night, there might just be history again for him someday.

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