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August 03. 2013 10:01PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Team's fate could rest on Lester

BASED on his recent results, it looked as though Jon Lester had figured it out. He'd begun to change the way he attacked hitters, and in doing so seemed to change his season, moving away from the overuse of his signature cutter and thereby becoming less predictable in big moments.

With that adjustment, a terrible June gave way to a terrific July. His 7.62 earned run average one month was trimmed to 3.13 the next, punctuated by seven scoreless innings in its final performance. There seemed legitimate hope that the fix for Lester's struggles was as simple as a new strategy.

Then came Friday. And with it came reasons to think it may be time to accept the reality that Lester's stuff just isn't as good as it used to be.

"I'll take my beatings if they find holes in the infield. I'll tip my hat all day to that. But when you're giving up doubles in the gap and balls off the wall and misfired fastballs, it's just unacceptable," Lester said after surrendering a homer, five doubles and six runs over 4 1/3 innings in his shortest start of the season. "Like I said, I've got to find a way to make that adjustment and I didn't do that."

Lester's recent strategic adjustment was predicated on the idea that his go-to cutter no longer had the life it once did, and thus in situations where hitters knew he'd throw it trying to put them away, they sat on it and made him pay. For a couple starts he morphed into more of a fastball/changeup pitcher, and it worked, but that approach is only effective when the hurler is locating those pitches with precision.

And Friday night the Diamondbacks showed Lester what happens when he isn't.

"You can make adjustments, but if you can't keep the ball down it doesn't matter," he said. "Fastball was up, cutter was up, changeup was up - the adjustments don't matter if you can't keep the ball down. There was obviously a lot of fly balls hit tonight that the past three or four starts I've been able to keep on the ground.

"The ball was just elevated, and that's what they do when you elevate. Obviously the ball was leaking back over the middle of the plate."

Lester voiced his frustration, and took the blame, but insisted he knew what had to change. "It's pretty simple: keep the ball down, and if I do that, it's a different story tonight," he said. Although that's where the questions about the quality of his stuff start to arise.

Quality starts with command, and command begins with consistency for a pitcher. From delivery to release point to location, he's best when he can identify what works and repeat it from pitch to pitch and game to game.

When it's just a little bit off, so are his pitches. And when that slight miss comes while still attempting to challenge hitters within the strike zone, even missing by just an inch or two can be the difference between finding the barrel instead of the end of the bat, or maybe getting a hitter to swing over it altogether.

The Lester of old - the Lester who was one of the premier lefties in the American League - used to be able to get away with that. His cutter was a legitimate swing-and-miss weapon, his fastball had good action, and his ability to avoid the dangerous parts of the plate was much better.

For evidence of that, look at batters' slugging percentage against him: In his first four full-time, big-league seasons, it was .358; over the last two seasons it's .436, which is worse than the league average.

"It was inconsistent location within the strike zone," manager John Farrell said Friday. "He didn't create any additional issues by issuing any walks, and it was more him trying to go away from some right-handers that he pulled the ball back toward the middle of the plate or inner-third to (Cody) Ross, to (Martin) Prado. Not as sharp to his arm side as he's been his last couple of times out."

Long-term, it remains to be seen whether his inconsistency costs Lester in terms of finances and his future with the Red Sox. The club holds a $13 million option on him for next season, when he's 30, and while they're likely to exercise that, the Sox aren't likely excited to begin talks of an extension.

More immediately concerning, though, is what Lester will do for them this season. With Clay Buchholz still out, the Sox lack a stopper in their starting rotation, and if they get to the playoffs they don't at this point know if they can count on either Buchholz or Lester - which would put them at a significant disadvantage in any series.

Three days ago, they thought Lester was on his way to easing those concerns. But after Friday, the questions about who he is appear to be as pertinent as ever.

LOOKING at the names, and the general inexperience, the supposition is that the Red Sox need to somehow fortify their bullpen - be it internally or by the waiver process. A middle-of-the-road ERA wouldn't dispute that, either.

But consider these numbers, all entering Saturday: The Sox had 11 walkoff wins this season, were 7-4 in extra-inning games, were 16-11 in one-run games, and were 51-5 when leading after six innings. Yet Boston's offense was batting only .195 (with three extra-base hits) in extra innings, was batting only .235 with the margin tied or a single run in the seventh inning or later.

That says the offense has left a lot of pressure on the bullpen - and the relievers have been able to handle it.

STAT OF THE WEEK: According to coolstandings.com, the Sox entered Saturday with a 92 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. Only Detroit (92.7) had a higher probability in the AL, followed by Tampa Bay (85.7) and Oakland (78.3). The site also gave the Rangers a better than 50-50 chance of making the postseason despite beginning the day with a half-game lead over Cleveland (44.4) for the second wild-card berth.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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