Lester and Bullpen Peter Out in Eighth; Twins Avoid Sweep

Jim Thome follows through on an RBI single – his first of two, including the game-winner – in the first inning of Wednesday's game in Minnesota. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

It wasn’t one bad inning that did in Jon Lester Wednesday night in Minnesota: it was three mediocre innings, and a Red Sox bullpen that didn’t help.

The Twins scored in three separate innings off Lester, and Alfredo Aceves struggled in eighth-inning relief to give the Twins a 5-2 victory. Combined with a Yankees victory over the Angels, the Red Sox now lead the AL East by just 1.5 games.

Lester Can’t Get Through Eighth

Lester retired the Twins on three batters – twice in 1-2-3 innings, twice through double plays – four times in the first seven innings of the game, but the Twins went up 2-0 on a Jim Thome RBI single in the first and a Joe Mauer ground-rule double in the sixth in which second baseman Trevor Plouffe was awarded home plate on fan interference.

Lester got out of the seventh with a bases-loaded ground out, and the Red Sox tied the game 2-2 in the top of the eighth. Terry Francona let him pitch the bottom of the eighth despite Lester having already thrown over 100 pitches.

It was a poor decision.

Lester began the inning by walking Mauer, then two batters later Thome knocked in his second run of the night with a double to deep left to put the Twins up 3-2. Francona then went to Aceves, who’d already thrown 45 pitches across four appearances in the last six games.

Aceves faced four batters and could not retire any of them, giving up an RBI double to third baseman Danny Valencia and a bases-loaded single to shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka to put the Twins up 5-2 before left fielder Delmon Young (2-2 with two walks) was thrown out trying to score from second.

Joe Nathan pitched a perfect ninth for his ninth save of the season, becoming in the process the Twins’ all-time saves leader.

Lester suffered his sixth loss of the season, giving up four runs on eight hits, five walks and four strikeouts in 7.1 innings. He threw 113 pitches, 79 for strikes, and at times showed good command with his fastball and cutter, getting 25 called strikes. He also kept the ball on the ground, getting 12 ground ball outs and one double play to just four flyouts.

Ortiz’s Solo Shot Highlights Light-Hitting Night for Red Sox

The Red Sox could do very little with Twins starter Nick Blackburn through the first six innings, managing just five hits and no runs. They put two men on with one out in the top of the fourth, but Carl Crawford flied out and Jarrod Saltalamacchia struck out (the two went a combined 0-for-7) to end the inning.

Blackburn’s command – 19 first-pitch strikes out of 29 batters, 20 called strikes – and sharply breaking change-up kept Red Sox hitters off-balance until the seventh, when Mike Aviles (starting at second Wednesday) drew a two-out walk. Aviles had already singled and doubled, and he started a neat double play in the second, making an over-the-shoulder grab on a blooper to right before spinning and firing to first to nail the runner.

Aviles advanced to second when Jacoby Ellsbury reached on an error, then Marco Scutaro drove him in with a single to left to make it 2-1 Twins.

Lefty Glen Perkins relieved Blackburn and retired Adrian Gonzalez (0-for-4) on a flyout to get out of the seventh, but David Ortiz took an eighth-inning, 98 mile-per-hour fastball from Perkins into the center field bullpen for a solo home run to tie the game 2-2. Ortiz finished his series against his former team 7-for-11 with two walks, two home runs and five RBIs.

Because of the Twins’ eighth-inning runs, Perkins vultured the win, his fourth of the season. Blackburn took a no-decision despite holding the best offense in baseball to just six hits and no earned runs in 6.1 innings.

For the second straight game, the Red Sox could not generate much offense in support of Lester, their winningest pitcher in 2011. With the previous three games decided late in the game or in extra innings, the bullpen lacked the arms to hold down a 2-2 tie. Lester tired, the bullpen couldn’t back him up, and the Red Sox lost because of it.