BOSTON - For the better part of the last year, Alfredo Aceves has represented a delicate challenge for the Red Sox.
Until now, the Sox have decided that the positives -- his durability, his versatility -- have outweighed the negatives.
But Tuesday night may represent a tipping point of sorts.
It was bad enough Aceves allowed eight runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings in a brutal 13-0 loss to the Oakland A's in 42-degree drizzle at Fenway Park. It was made worse by Aceves' actions in the third, when a) he threw 42 pitches, as he allowed six runs; b) balked twice in the span of a few hitters; c) failed to cover first base in time on a ground ball to the right side that would have ended the inning with the score only 3-0, and d) after the runner, Josh Reddick, was ruled safe, turned and made a lazy, flat-footed throw to the plate that sailed past catcher Jarod Saltalamacchia and allowed another run to score.
And when Aceves offered a litany of excuses for his outing -- blaming the weather conditions and the strike zone of plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, which he hinted was smaller for him than for Oakland starter Bartolo Colon -- and followed that by asking rhetorically of his teammates, "Why didn't we hit?'', he may have crossed a line.
"I don't know if I'd go into the effort level,'' said manager John Farrell. "[But there] seemed to be a lack of focus, given the way Alfredo has pitched this year for us . . . It wasn't a good night.''
Asked if it's become difficult to know what to expect from the mercurial pitcher from one outing to the next, Farrell was equally blunt: "It's varied - I will say that. He's healthy, he's got the ability to manipulate the baseball, as we've seen. You'd like to think that there'd be more of a known commodity in a given role, particularly in a starting role, when you've got five days to prepare for the next outing.
"Tonight wasn't one of his better performances.''
Not by a longshot. And things got worse minutes later when Aceves answered questions from reporters.
Asked what he thought happened, Aceves calmly responded: "Nothing interesting. Just a game we won, um, we lost, and that's it . . . Everything was fine.''
Aceves did accept responsibility for not getting to the first base bag in time for the throw from Mike Napoli to beat Reddick, acknowledging: "It was my fault.''
But then he quickly shifted blame away from himself, citing the rainy conditions, holes left in the mound by Colon, and a shrunken strike zone.
"It's not only one play (that caused us to lose),'' he said. "To get to that play, it's not easy. The strike zone can get small . . . As a pitcher, man, it's not easy. Also, the weather, whatever the weather is, we should be able to play. It don't matter what the score is, we've got to have our backs.
"(With a smaller strike zone) I have to throw the ball down the middle . . . I don't see no reason to throw the ball down the middle and get hacked. It's not good. It's not healthy for you, it's not healthy for the team. I'm a little upset over that, of course, because we lost.''
When it was pointed out that Colon, pitching with the same strike zone and the same wet, muddy conditions, had shut out the Sox for seven innings, Aceves made what might have been his greatest misstep.
"Maybe his strike zone was not as small,'' countered Aceves, "for whatever reason. Also, they got to hack. Why didn't we hit?''
As he continued his rambled, tortured explanation for his poor night, Aceves unwittingly may have provided the answer that he himself failed to follow.
"At the end of the day, you've got to do it,'' he said. "You've got to do it. There's nothing you can do about it, but just do it. That's just the way it is.''
Of course, Aceves didn't "do it.'' Instead, on a night when he showed several mental lapses, runs and failed to get out of the fourth inning, he took the unwise step of questioning why his teammates didn't offer him more offensive support.
Aceves has been mostly tolerated by his teammates for the past several years, but several key personalities are new to the team and may not take kindly to his finger-pointing.
"The follow-up to this,'' said Farrell, "will be consistent as it would be with any other starter: to review the game, walk through the things that transpired, try to get a better idea of what the thought process was after you sleep on it for a day and go to work from there.''
Tuesday night, it was worth wondering if the follow-up would include the Red Sox asking themselves: How much is too much to take?