BOSTON -- When Cody Ross found the Monster Seats in the ninth inning Thursday night, Red Sox fans hopefully wondered if things had finally clicked. They'd won for just the third time this season when trailing after eight, jerseys were shredded, they'd taken three of four from a first-place team — and everybody was at last feeling good.
But then came the weekend. And 27 innings of evidence that, in reality, these Red Sox are as enigmatic, inconsistent and enervating as ever.
The final blow coming in the form of Sunday's 15-7 slaughter — which featured four innings of 11-run ball from supposed staff ace Jon Lester — Boston was swept in a three-game set against the Blue Jays, sending them back to last place in the American League East, dropping them back to .500 for the season, and sending themselves onto the road with a losing record in what was projected as a potentially pivotal homestand.
It was a homestand they hoped would be a launching pad for the second half. And after Ross' Thursday heroics, it seemed well on the way to being that; they'd won five of their first seven since the break.
But instead, after three straight setbacks it's off to Texas, then New York, with the need to succeed on the most challenging road trip the AL can offer — or else they'll next take the field at Fenway Park as a sub-.500 squad.
“We've got to find a way to grind out wins,” said second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who professed faith in Lester both during the game — when he had a heart to heart with his pitcher — and afterward. “We're trying to find the identity of our team. We want to do something special.”
Just days ago, that identity seemed to be taking shape. Pedroia was back, as were Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford. Adrian Gonzalez, who slugged a three-run home run Sunday, was beginning to look like himself again.
But no club is complete without quality starting pitching. No playoff-caliber club is complete without quality starting pitching at the top of its rotation. And that's where Boston's biggest failure came during this lost homestand, with three of the four defeats charged to either Josh Beckett or Lester — the latter of whom has put his team in a big hole in three straight starts.
Sunday he was brutal from the start, allowing a leadoff blast to Brett Lawrie among five runs in the first, then later surrendering blasts to JP Arencibia, Rajai Davis and Travis Snider. A day after saying his lefty had been working on his mechanics with pitching coach Bob McClure, Manager Bobby Valentine left Lester on the mound to work things out, but eventually he exited having yielded nine hits and a season-high five walks without recording an out in the fifth.
As he left, boos cascaded from the sellout crowd filling the seats. However, by the time he reached the baseline the fervor had died down substantially — replaced by a silence that had a stunned, almost sympathetic, vibe to it. When he reached the dugout, Lester didn't linger. It was immediately to the clubhouse.
“It's embarrassing,” Lester said. “I've let my team down a lot this year. It's hard for me to walk around this clubhouse and look guys in the eye right now. I'm not pitching well. Not doing my job. The guys scored seven runs today. We should win this game. Like I said, it's embarrassing.”
“I've never seen an offense put in such positions as our offense has been put in, battling from the start of the game,” Valentine said. “I'm proud of them. They keep battling back, keep, you know, keep scratching away and fighting, but it's not fair.”
Afterward, the befuddled southpaw could only hope things turned soon — “God, I hope so. I'm not a fan of (stinking)” – but with his earned run ballooned to 5.46, he ranked 93rd of baseball's 100 qualifiers this season, and since Sept. 11 of last season he's given up 91 earned runs in 24 starts. In the 24 starts before that, he'd been charged with only 48 runs.
He'll get his next chance at getting right on Saturday against the Yankees — by when the Sox's playoff chances could be growing more perilous by the moment. Entering Sunday Night Baseball, they were 3 1/2 games back in the wild-card race, and in relation to the rest of the league, they were trailing more teams (six) than they had trailing them (four).
Sunday that was Lester's fault, but that came after three days when the bats were mostly silent. Even Thursday, when Ross saved them, they played eight innings before scoring a run. It was in line with a year in which Boston's inconsistency has left it to endure dramatic swings between good and bad, between hitting and pitching, between gaining momentum and sinking toward the next rock bottom.
And considering how high they were Thursday, this time the sinking happened really fast.
“Tough series,” Ross said. “Really tough series, especially coming off a really good series. It stings.”
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.