Justin Morneau capped a five-run fifth inning with his 14th home run of the season as the Minnesota Twins defeated the Red Sox 5-2 Tuesday night to split the first two games of their four-game series at the Metrodome.
Lester made it through six innings and 100 pitches, but the bad inning that has haunted him for much of the season reared its ugly head once again. He breezed through the first four innings, allowing only three baserunners before unraveling once again in the fifth.
The Twins began chipping away at Lester with three singles and an RBI groundout. Joe Mauer drew a walk before Morneau came to the plate with two men on. Morneau didn’t waste much time drilling a 1-0 fastball out of the park to right field, instantly blowing the game wide open 5-0.
Minnesota batted around in the inning, with Delmon Young getting a second at-bat. But Jacoby Ellsbury robbed the Twins left fielder with an excellent running catch deep in center field to save Lester and the Red Sox from even more damage.
Lester certainly seems lost right now, and Terry Francona shared his sentiment on the disturbing and baffling frequency of bad individual innings in his starts.
“He looks like he has a chance to get out of it, and then one pitch and all of a sudden there is a crooked number on the board,” Francona told RedSox.com. “I know he is frustrated.”
It is a frustrating season indeed, so far. Lester has now allowed four or more runs in a single inning in six of his 10 starts this season. He is 3-5 with a 6.07 ERA and opponents are hitting .306 against him.
The fifth inning looks like a specific point of deterioration in many of Lester’s outings. He has allowed 19 fifth-inning runs this season—including six of his 11 home runs—while yielding 19 in all other innings combined.
When asked by RedSox.com reporter Thor Nystrom if his single-inning struggles are a point of concern, Lester said, “Yeah, I guess…I don’t know what to tell you guys. I don’t really have any answers for you.”
There were bright spots for the Red Sox in Tuesday’s loss. Jacoby Ellsbury extended his career-high hitting streak to 21 games, the longest for the Red Sox since Kevin Youkilis hit for 27 in a row in 2007.
David Ortiz also had a solid night at the plate while batting sixth in the order, the first time he batted anywhere other than third since May 2005. Ortiz went 1-for-3 with a walk, legging out a line-drive double in his first at-bat in the second inning.
His resurgence would obviously be a boon for the Red Sox offense, which is close to firing on all cylinders right now. But the more important issue is solving the inconsistency issue with Lester and the rotation.
If a drastic problem or unexpected injury arises, the Red Sox do have the luxury of quality pitching looming in the minor leagues. Clay Buchholz took a perfect game into the ninth inning Tuesday and finished with a one-hitter, lowering his ERA to 1.30 in the minor leagues so far this season. Buchholz continues to dazzle at AAA and put more pressure on the Red Sox to make room for him.
John Smoltz is also making progress in his rehabilitation, and could arrive by mid-June. If the Red Sox suffer mightily due to Ortiz’s prolonged struggles, their surplus of pitching could lead to a mid-season trade to solidify the middle of the lineup.
The acquisition of an immediate-impact hitter like Matt Holliday would not surprise, nor would a top-tier prospect like the Indians’ Matt LaPorta or the Pirates’ Pedro Alvarez. And let’s not forget that the Red Sox also have first baseman Lars Anderson getting some seasoning at AA before possibly making an appearance sometime this season.
I guess my point is, the Red Sox are one of the deepest organizations in baseball. They have some issues to work out, team-wise and individually, but if anyone’s capable of plugging all the holes, it’s them.