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Red Sox 'aces' are killing the season

Posted by Robert Burgess  July 23, 2012 10:39 AM

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Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek was recently presented with home plate byJon Lester (31), Clay Buchholz (11), and Josh Beckett (19). (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are killing the Red Sox. Case closed. Just like last September.

General manager Ben Cherington believes "the makings" of a good pitching staff are still right here in Boston as the Red Sox rapidly approach next Tuesday's trading deadline, but the results at Fenway Park over the weekend continue to suggest otherwise. Winners of two straight series against potential playoff teams to start the second half, the Red Sox were set up perfectly for a weekend set against a Toronto Blue Jays club playing without slugger Jose Bautista. Beckett on Friday. Lester on Sunday.

The result? Loss, loss, loss, the last an unsightly 15-7 defeat on Sunday in which Lester allowed five runs in the first inning on a day when the Red Sox were trying to avoid a sweep. Just like the four-game series (three losses) against the New York Yankees to end the first half, Beckett and Lester turned in bookend stink bombs that dealt yet another blow to any Boston momentum.

"It's embarrassing," Lester told reporters following Sunday's 15-7 loss to the Blue Jays in which he allowed nine hits, 11 runs (all earned) four home runs and five walks while his ERA ballooned to 5.46.

With all due respect to Lester, embarrassing does not even begin to describe it. Pathetic is more like it. Between them, Lester and Beckett count for $23 million against the Red Sox luxury-tax payroll. Add in the $16.5 million price tag for John Lackey - who lockers next to Beckett and whose lot line features an insulting bottle opener that still hangs after the debacle of last September - and the number jumps to $39.5 million for the alleged three-headed monster the Red Sox built atop their rotation prior to the 2010 season.

Total combined wins this year for - dare we say it? - the Pig Three: 10 (in 36 starts). Overall, the Red Sox are 13-23 in the 36 games started by Lester (7-13) and Beckett (6-10) this year. Their combined ERA is 5.03. (Lackey remains injured.) Minus games started by Lester and Beckett, the Red Sox this season are 35-25, a .583 winning percentage that would translate into a 94-win pace.

And of late, the timing of the losses, too, has been costly.

One quick aside here: has Bobby Valentine been watching the same games everyone else has lately? Lester hasn't made it out of the fifth inning in any of his last three starts, lasting 4.1, 4 and 4 innings. On Sunday against the Jays, after Lester allowed five runs in the top of the first, the Sox struck back with a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning to mitigate the damage.

So what did Lester do? He took the mound for the second inning and promptly walked the leadoff man, missing badly on ball four. The Red Sox bullpen briefly started to stir, but then Lester recorded one out on a bunt by Yunel Escobar and another on a flyout by Colby Rasmus. With Valentine apparently satisfied that Lester had stabilized, the bullpen quieted before Lester walked Edwin Encarnacion and then served up a backbreaking three-run homer to J.P. Arencibia.

Even then, Lester stayed in the game for two more innings. Lester had nothing and everyone knew it. Bobby V. might have intervened in the second to keep the Red Sox within arm's length, but he did nothing.

But we digress.

The obvious question now is how the Red Sox fix this and whether Cherington would be so bold as to shake up the front end of a rotation that is almost exclusively to blame for the team's failings. During a radio interview on Friday on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Cherington said he did not anticipate making any notable subtractions from the Boston roster. The first-year general manager went so far as to say that he believed his team could "beat anybody" with the roster the Sox currently possess.

Nonetheless, with regard to Messrs. Beckett and Lester (and Lackey), one can only wonder whether some sort of shakeup is necessary, particularly as it pertains to Lester. Count yours truly among those who believe that Lester can be salvaged. He is 28. He is left-handed. Coming up through the minor leagues, Lester had the reputation of a hard-working, competitive, unassuming young man with good values. The Red Sox all but entrusted him to Beckett's care early in Lester's career, and Lester was one of the winningest pitchers in baseball through the first five years of his career.

What has happened to Lester since is an utter mystery. In his last 24 starts, Lester is 5-11 with a 5.85 ERA. He has allowed 163 hits and 19 home runs in his last 140 innings. Prior to that, in 151 career outings (150 starts), Lester was 76-31 (a .710 winning percentage) with a .343 ERA. During that same period of time from 2006 top early September 2011, there was not another pitcher in baseball who made at least 150 starts and had a higher winning percentage than Lester.

Think about that. Not Roy Halladay, not C.C. Sabathia, not Justin Verlander. None of them won a higher percentage of decisions than Lester. And now Lester can't make it out of the fifth inning at a time when pitchers have reclaimed their dominance and he is in the prime of his career.

Maybe Lester is injured. (Was it just me or did he have a slight hitch walking on and off the mound yesterday?) Or maybe the influence of high-priced, entitled veterans like Beckett and Lackey is now having a negative effect.

Whatever the case, Red Sox fans have rightfully grown impatient. As Lester labored through the early part of the game yesterday, the boos at Fenway Park were noticeable. Fans routinely attack him on Twitter.

Lester has done a better job than Beckett or Lackey at accepting responsibility for last September, but he has also had the biggest hand in the team's failures.

This week, the Red Sox have perhaps their toughest test of the season, a six-game road trip through Texas and New York. Beckett will face the Rangers on Wednesday. Lester will face the Yankees over the weekend. The Red Sox have now slipped 3-1/2 games back in the wildcard race - behind the Angels, Orioles, A's, White Sox, Rays and Blue Jays - and they suddenly look like lambs being led to slaughter.

If you're Ben Cherington, you may want to delay making any decisions for at least another week.

By this time next week, after all, Cherington might want to pull the trigger for altogether different reasons.

Tony's Top 5

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The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
For 2011 Red Sox, there was plenty of blame to go around Oct. 1, 2011. The disgraceful collapse of the Red Sox stoked the fire in all of us.
Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
Thrill is back for Patriots Jan. 30, 2012. Another Super Bowl has even Bill Belichick musing.
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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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