Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hole Digging

Watching Jon Lester these days is like going on a date with a beautiful girl, having a wonderful time and then, over a lovely dinner, she casually mentions that she is a Nazi. And all those good feelings go right out the door and no matter what happened before, the night is ruined.

Last night, Jon Lester gave up only two hits and no runs going into the fifth inning. By the time he got out of it, the Twins had tacked on four more hits and five runs. The end result was a 5-2 loss to the Twins that was mitigated only by the fact that New York and Toronto also lost. The "Big Inning O' Doom" is starting to be an issue with Lester. In that 5-4 loss to Seattle on May 15, he gave up four runs in the sixth. In the 14-5 loss to Tampa on May 9, he gave up six runs in the fifth inning. And now we have this debacle. Lester has given up 4+ runs in a single inning in three of his last four starts. That, my friends, is a problem.

When you put your team in a hole like that, it places a lot of pressure on the lineup to make up ground. So they start swinging harder or trying to hit a pitch they may normally take. The Sox less than half their hit total after that fifth inning and didn't draw a single walk after that point. They were lucky to get that second run off a double play ball, and the only reason it happened was because Ellsbury is so damned fast.

Lester is struggling this year. In part, it is likely due to his heavy workload last year (first time at 200+ innings) and the effect that has had on his arm. He has never thrown that many innings in a single season in the majors or the minors. But I think his mental toughness has taken a bit of a beating. He needs to remember that no matter what is going on in the game, he is still the same pitcher that went 16-6 last year and threw a no-hitter. Once he does that, and his gets conditioned to throwing these kinds of innings, Lester should be just fine.

One encouraging thing to take away from last night's game was the continued solid work of the bullpen. Callup Daniel Bard threw one shutout inning and Takashi Saito struck out the side in the eighth. Provided the starting pitcher doesn't bury the team, that kind of work will pay off in wins for Boston down the road. There have been rumors about Bard being trade bait. I don't think that's likely; not only is he a good bullpen arm, but the Sox need him as leverage against Papelbon in a couple of years when Paps goes into free agency.

The batting was okay. Once again Ellsbury and Pedroia carried their share of the load; Ellsbury scored two runs and Mighty Mite drove in a run. But Jason Bay went 0-4, and that matters. In the month of May, the Red Sox are 1-8 when Jason Bay goes hitless. Conversely, they are 12-3 when he gets a hit. In other words, as Jason Bay goes, so go the Red Sox. And that is only going to increase his bargaining power when it is time to sign him to a new contract. But for now, it means that he is the engine that drives this offense. Until Papi gets his groove back, it's in Bay we trust.

Tonight we get Daisuke matching up against Kevin Slowey. Once again, the Twins pitcher has the better record. Slowey is 6-1 this year, although he does give up his fair share of hits. But he gets results; last year Slowey went 12-11 with a 3.99 ERA, three complete games and two shutouts. So even though you may not have heard of him before now, don't think the Sox have an easy time tonight. Unless Daisuke pitches like its 2008 and the lineup can tag Slowey early, it could be another long night for Boston.

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