ST. PETERSBURG -- Jon Lester prides himself on being the pitcher the Red Sox can depend on when he's needed most. That's why Tuesday night's performance at Tropicana Field will likely be one he will stew over for a while.
After a 14-inning win on Monday taxed Boston's bullpen, what manager John Farrell needed more than anything was a prolonged start from his lefty horse.
Instead Lester had his worst outing of the season, and the Red Sox suffered an 8-3 loss to the Rays.
"This one, obviously, is what it is," Lester said. "It's just terrible. I did a terrible job of helping out our bullpen; I did a terrible job of keeping the ball down in the zone. The list goes on. This is solely on me. These guys count on me to go out there and throw innings, and I didn't do that tonight. I just flat out didn't get it done.'
Lester (6-3, 4.12 ERA) lasted just 4 2/3 innings, giving up eight hits and seven runs. He tied a career high with seven walks while striking out three and throwing 98 pitches.
Without question, Lester has been trending in the wrong direction of late. In his first nine starts, he went 6-0 with a 2.72 ERA. But in his last five outings, he is 0-3 with a 7.50 ERA. Opponents are hitting .314 against him in that span.
"Regardless of the position, they are human," said Farrell. "There's going to be rolls that guys will get on and carry it through. We're seeing it on the other side with [Clay Buchholz], and in this case, over the mentioned number of starts, things haven't been as crisp for Jon from start to finish inside a given outing."
The one thing Red Sox Nation can take heart in is that nothing is physically wrong with Lester.
"I feel great," he said. "I honestly do. I know pitch count's been a thing this year, but tonight I felt great. Probably the best I've felt all season. It just comes down to commanding the baseball, whether you have nagging stuff, minor stuff, whatever it is -- commanding the baseball is simple, and I didn't do that."
The only thing that eased his mind was the work of Jose De La Torre out of the bullpen.
Called up from Triple-A Pawtucket earlier in the day, De La Torre gave the Red Sox 3 1/3 innings, allowing two hits and a run. He was able to finish out the game after Lester departed.
"De La Torre picked me up and was able to save some arms in that bullpen for us, and that was huge," said Lester. "In my eyes he's the biggest part of the game for us. He picked me up. I just flat out didn't get it done. Just terrible."
The Red Sox broke out first. Jacoby Ellsbury opened the game with a single and then stole second. Shane Victorino produced a single to right, and Dustin Pedroia's sacrifice fly made it 1-0.
It was clear right from the outset that Lester wasn't sharp. Desmond Jennings opened the bottom of the first with an infield single, and Sean Rodriguez followed with a walk. Evan Longoria and Yunel Escobar drew one-out walks to load the bases, then Lester walked James Loney to force in a run. Lester walked four in that frame.
"The first inning was tough," said Lester. "I got a big double play from [Ben] Zobrist, but really, the first inning kind of sums up the whole night. I was just not able to repeat whatever pitch it may be -- fastball, curveball, changeup, cutter. I just was not able to repeat, whether it be a location or just the pitch in itself. Just not good."
Jennings gave the Rays the lead in the second when he belted a two-out solo shot to center.
Back came the Red Sox in the third. Jose Iglesias got it started with a single and moved to second on a fielder's choice. Victorino pushed the runners to second and third with a sacrifice bunt. Following an intentional walk to David Ortiz, Mike Napoli looped in a two-run single to give Boston the lead back, at 3-2.
The Rays would come right back. With two on and two out, Ryan Roberts came up with an RBI single up the middle. Jose Molina followed with an RBI single, and Tampa Bay was back in front, at 4-3.
"For lack of a better term, it's [horrible] on my part," Lester said. "Guys kept battling back, and every time they did, I gave it right back to them. It's unacceptable. I've got to do a better job."
Longoria continued to make things tough on Lester, belting a solo homer to the opposite field in right in the fourth.
Lester's undoing came in the fifth, when he issued one-out walks to Roberts and Molina, the Nos. 7 and 8 hitters. He did pick off Roberts between second and third, but Matt Joyce, batting ninth, cranked a two-run homer, ending Lester's night.
"We've just got to find a way to put guys away," said catcher David Ross. "I don't know if we need to be more aggressive, or what. We're going to work hard and study and find out exactly what it takes to finish those innings. Yeah, [Lester's] the hardest worker on this team. in my opinion. He'll get it straightened out, and all the coaching staff works real hard. We'll all put our heads together to figure out what we need to do."