ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For the better part of the last few seasons, no individual on the Red Sox has mirrored the team's performance as a whole -- good and bad -- more than Jon Lester.
- When Lester won just one game in September 2011, they experienced a free-fall out of first place, losing 20 of the last 27
- When Lester suffered through the worst season of his career a year ago, the Red Sox plummeted to last place and finished with the franchise's worst mark since 1966.
- And when Lester got off to a 6-0, 2.72 start earlier this season, his turnaround was a microcosm for the team's rebounding start.
But lately, the two have diverged. While the Red Sox continue to own the best record in the American League, Lester hasn't been part of the solution.
On Tuesday night, he was smacked around for seven runs while walking seven in just 4 2/3 innings in an 8-3 loss to Tampa. It was Lester's worst outing of the season and extended his winless streak to five straight starts.
After beginning the season 6-0 in his first nine appearances, Lester is now 0-3 with a 6.90 in his last five.
"Not able to repeat," said a glum Lester after the outing, "whatever pitch it might be -- fastball, curveball, changeup, cutter. Just was not able to repeat, whether it be location or the pitch itself. Just not good."
There's no good time for a stinker like the one Lester threw Tuesday, but his timing was particularly poor, given the Sox had gone 14 innings the night before and had to make a roster move Tuesday afternoon just to get themselves a fresh arm for the bullpen.
On a night when his team needed him to go deep into the game, Lester couldn't get through the fifth, necessitating 3 1/3 innings from Jose De La Torre, who had a day pass to the big leagues.
To his credit, Lester offered no excuses.
"This," he said, "is solely on me. The guys count on me to go innings and I didn't do that tonight. Just flat out didn't get it done. Just terrible."
Lester hasn't won in a month and while fellow rotation-leader Clay Buchholz is undefeated (9-0), he's had two of his last four turns pushed back because of a nagging neck and collarbone issues.
Together, Lester and Buchholz were identified as keys to the Red Sox' early season turnaround. But can the Sox continue to maintain their standing atop the A.L. East without consistent (or healthy) contributions from their Big Two?
Pitching coach Juan Nieves, who did a nice job in getting Felix Doubront back on track last month, will have to find something with Lester, too. While Doubront, John Lackey and Ryan Dempster have kept the Sox in more games than not, ultimately, the Sox need both Lester and Buchholz at the top of their respective games to thrive.
In the meantime, Lester has to get himself righted. Farrell maintained that the lefty has continued driving the ball downhill, a focal point of the makeover that began last year and continued as a point of emphasis in spring training.
"It's not so much a glaring issue with the delivery," explained Farrell. "It's just maintaining it from inning to inning."
The dropoff for Lester has been so drastic that it's led to questions about his health. But both Lester and Farrell insisted there's nothing wrong physically.
"We're still seeing consistent philosophy," said Farrell. "It's just the overall consistent command. There have been times when he's gotten a little bit flat through the strike zone. But to say it's one thing in terms of a part of the delivery or some timing mechanism inside it . . . that's not glaring.
"It gets back to repeating the delivery. It's not one thing that you look at it (and find) a constant adjustment that needs to be made or a constant flaw. It's just getting back to that consistent, pitch-to-pitch execution."
For the Red Sox' sake, the sooner the better.