Lester Gives up Three in First, Rays Complete Sweep

B.J. Upton celebrates with teammates after hitting a grand slam during the fifth inning of Sunday's baseball game in St. Petersburg. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

The Red Sox are in absolute free fall, and by the time they hit the ground, they might be looking up at the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoff race.

Rays starter James Shields allowed just one earned run in 8.1 innings Sunday afternoon in St. Petersburg, and the Rays battered Jon Lester and the bullpen in a 9-1 Rays victory, completing the sweep and pulling Tampa Bay to just three losses behind Boston in the wild card race. The Red Sox have now lost five straight, and 10 of their last 13.

Lester Continues to Struggle Early

Lester entered Sunday’s game having allowed 13 first-inning earned runs, the most of any inning. His struggles continued Sunday, with the Rays sending eight to the plate against him in the first..

The Rays began the game with back-to-back singles, then Evan Longoria walked on four pitches to load the bases with no outs. Second baseman Ben Zobrist saw three pitches, then singled to left to drive in two. After a fielder’s choice moved Longoria to third, shortstop Sean Rodriguez hit a sacrifice fly to center to drive him in and make it 3-0 Rays.

None of Lester’s pitches worked Sunday. His fastball did not overpower, resulting in 29 foul balls to just 11 swinging strikes, and his cutter lacked the sharp movement necessary to fool hitters, leading to three walks and numerous long at-bats in which Rays hitters just waited Lester out.

Lester threw 43 pitches in the first, 26 in the second, 16 in the third, 26 in the fourth … and that was it. Lester couldn’t even make it to the fifth, suffering his seventh loss of the season. He threw 68 of his 111 total pitches for strikes, giving up four earned runs (the Rays added another on a Johnny Damon triple and a Rodriguez double in the third) on eight hits, three walks and two strikeouts.

Bullpen Only Makes it Worse

Four earned runs are far too many when facing against Shields, but Boston’s exhausted bullpen quickly pushed the game out reach.

Michael Bowden loaded the bases on two walks and a single in the fifth, and Matt Albers replaced Bowden with two outs. Up stepped B.J. Upton, who smashed a 2-0 down-the-pipe fastball into the left field bleachers for the grand slam. 8-1 Rays. Upton finished the game with four hits, four RBIs, three runs and a walk.

Felix Doubront gave up another run in the seventh, but as the tiniest, least significant of silver linings, Franklin Morales pitched a 1-2-3 eighth.

Shields Can’t Quite Go the Distance, Still Wins

Shields was his usual brilliant self Sunday, and the Red Sox never figured him out. Their lone scoring opportunities came in the second and third, but a Jason Varitek (0-3) double play with two men on ended the second.

The top of the third began with more promise, with Marco Scutaro (2-3) leading off with a solo home run and the Red Sox loading the bases on a single and two walks. But with one out, David Ortiz (0-4) could not drive the ball deep enough to left to score Mike Aviles (2-4), and Josh Reddick then fouled out on a 3-1 count.

After Upton’s grand slam put the game away in the fifth, Shields regained his dominating form, allowing just one base runner from the sixth through the eighth. Only Lester’s long innings kept Shields from recording the final two outs of the game, but Shields still picked up his 15th win after allowing just the one earned run on seven hits, three walks and five strikeouts.

No Relief in Sight

The Red Sox have now gone through their entire battered pitching rotation and lost all five games. So what’s the solution? No one knows.

The Red Sox offense isn’t producing runs consistently, and the colder Boston fall temperatures will likely further diminish it. The bullpen can’t help the situation either because of how much they’ve been used. In the last 13 games, the bullpen has averaged over four innings of work per game. With pitchers like Albers and Daniel Bard (0-2, two blown saves, 17.18 ERA in September) finally showing wear and tear, a starting pitcher will have to step up and stop this losing streak.

Despite his talent, Lester has never shown the character necessary to be the true ace of this team. Whenever he’s been given the opportunity to rise above his No. 2 status, he’s faltered. But with no one left to be that ace, Lester must find a way or the Red Sox may be watching the playoffs at home come October.