Lester’s shot at 20 goes dim

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / October 1, 2010

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CHICAGO — The Red Sox arrived at U.S. Cellular Field last night with a sense of purpose usually missing from a team already eliminated from postseason contention.

No lefthander had won 20 games for the Red Sox since Mel Parnell in 1953. But Jon Lester, their young ace, had a chance. For one night, at least, there could be something to celebrate.

A cancer survivor who already has thrown a no-hitter and won the clinching game of a World Series, Lester was on the verge of making more history as he took the mound against the White Sox.

But in a season in which little has gone the way the Red Sox expected, Lester’s quest went awry as well. He was out of the game in the fifth inning, having surrendered eight runs.

By the sixth inning, the game was delayed for 21 minutes because of a power outage. The offseason just can’t come soon enough for the Red Sox, who were beaten, 8-2.

“One of those days,’’ Lester said. “Bad day to have one of them.’’

Lester (19-9) saw his earned run average rise from 2.96 to 3.25 as he allowed the eight runs on nine hits and five walks. The deciding shot was a fourth-inning grand slam by Paul Konerko, the first Lester had ever given up.

“That’s one of those things that’s hard not to realize,’’ said Lester, who had faced hitters with the bases loaded 66 previous times. “Hopefully, I give up a couple more. That means I’m pitching a long time. You move on.’’

Lester acknowledged that winning 20 games was on his mind throughout the day. But he did manage a few smiles after the game.

“It’s more disappointing not making the playoffs,’’ he said. “Would it have been nice? Yeah, I’m not going to lie to you. But regardless of all that we didn’t make the playoffs. We didn’t meet our goal this year and that’s more disappointing.’’

Lester came into the game having won his previous six starts while posting a 1.76 ERA.

With Cy Young Award votes due next week, Lester was seen as a possible compromise for those who could not decide whether to award New York’s CC Sabathia for his 21 victories or Seattle’s Felix Hernandez for his overall statistical excellence.

But last night was a struggle as Lester lacked command of his fastball and the Chicago hitters worked their way into favorable counts. The eight earned runs were one short of his career worst.

As Lester cast away his chance, John Danks (15-11) cruised through six innings for the win, giving up two runs.

The Red Sox finished 1-6 against the White Sox. They now return to Fenway Park for three games against the Yankees to conclude the season.

That Lester’s pursuit of 20 victories meant something to his teammates became evident to manager Terry Francona Wednesday night when he made out a preliminary lineup for last night’s game.

He intended to give second baseman Marco Scutaro a night off to rest his aching right shoulder and to use third baseman Adrian Beltre as the designated hitter. Both came to Francona and asked to play their usual positions to try to help Lester.

“After I thought about it, I was really kind of impressed,’’ Francona said. “It made me feel good.’’

Scutaro helped make a difference early in the game. With the Red Sox trailing, 1-0, he drove a double into the corner in left field. After a successful bunt by Darnell McDonald, Victor Martinez smacked the next pitch, an inside fastball, over the fence in left field.

It was the 20th home run of the season for Martinez. He has 79 runs batted in, 25 in September.

Lester did not hold the 2-1 lead for long. Juan Pierre, who scored three runs, singled and stole second. Singles by Konerko and Andruw Jones gave Chicago another run.

The game got way from Lester in the fourth inning.

Alejandro De Aza doubled with one out before Pierre and Alexei Ramirez drew two-out walks. Konerko fell behind, 1 and 2, worked the count full, and drove a Lester fastball out to left-center.

Lester left the pitch high and Konerko, who has 39 home runs, knew what to do.

“You can’t leave a fastball up to a guy like that,’’ said Lester, who had not allowed a home run since Aug. 20.

Lester went back out for the fifth inning and his bad night only got worse. Ramon Castro singled before Dayan Viciedo homered to right field. When Lester walked the next batter, Brent Morel, on four pitches, that was it.

Of the 99 pitches Lester threw, only 52 were strikes.

The Red Sox will soon begin rebuilding the roster for next season, a process made much easier thanks to the presence of Lester at the top of the rotation.

The Red Sox are 73-35 in games Lester has started over the last four years. There should be other opportunities to win 20 games in the years to come.

“Going out there every five days in this league is hard to do,’’ Francona said. “You have to be able to make adjustments, sometimes when you don’t have your good stuff. He’s one of the best.’’

Just not last night.

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