First Pitch: Sox need revitalized Lester to help with turnaround

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First Pitch: Sox need revitalized Lester to help with turnaround

Jon Lester will make his 31st start of the season Friday night as the Red Sox begin their final homestand of the season, and barring anything unforeseen, will make two more after that before the season comes a merciful end on Oct. 3.

If Lester wins his final three starts -- something he's done once before this season, from Aug. 12-24 -- he'll avoid finishing with a losing record for the year.

Even that, however, would be cold comfort for Lester, who, like his team, has weathered a massively disappointing season. Lester entered this season with the third-highest winning percentage (.691) of any pitcher with a minimum of 50 decisions and the very fact that he will have to rally here in the final two weeks just to break even speaks
to how sub-par his season has been.

When Lester drew the Opening Day assignment from Bobby Valentine, it helped represent a passing of the torch for the lefty. Though Josh Beckett was then still a teammate, the choice of Lester to pitch April 5 symbolized that he -- and not the more experienced Beckett -- was the top pitcher on the staff.

Except Lester failed to make good on that designation. He won just five games in the first four months and was tagged for five runs or more five times in his first 20 starts.

Given his team's fall from contention -- and, at times, respectability -- the outcome of Lester's last three starts is largely irrelevant. At this late date, Lester's season is beyond redemption.

But, as the saying goes, there's always next year. And it's overstatement whatsoever to suggest that Lester may be the most important player if the Sox are going to successfully execute a turnaround in 2013. With Beckett dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers last month, Lester is, more than ever, the face of the pitching staff. It's impossible to foresee the Sox becoming contenders again without substantial contributions from the lefty.

Just what exactly has ailed Lester this year is difficult to pinpoint. His .314 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is up from his career average and suggests that he's been at least somewhat unlucky, as he has claimed more than once.

Still, there's far more to Lester's off-year than simple misfortune. Too often, he has seen his concentration wander as he disputes umpires' strike zones and there have been a few mechanical glitches to overcome.

One club source believes that, more than any Red Sox pitcher, Lester has suffered from the team's endless parade of pitching coaches since the end of 2010. Lester, the source said, needs a consistent, forceful message and he has not had that this season.

In addition to his occasionally wandering focus on the mound, Lester is prone to bouts of self-doubt in between outings. He benefits from someone who can expertly diagnose flaws in his mechanics. Neither Curt Young last season, nor the tag team of Bob McClure and Randy Niemann have fit that description.

But if the Sox can work out a deal with Toronto to get Farrell to manage next season, Lester could be a huge beneficiary.

"I guarantee that you that Farrell could fix Lester in about half an hour," said one of the pitcher's former teammates recently. The club source voiced a similar sentiment.

Lester had his best seasons with Farrell as his pitching coach. From 2008-2010, Lester averaged 207 innings and almost 17 wins per season, with a composite ERA of 3.25 in that span.

There's no guarantee that Farrell is returning and no assurance that he -- or anyone else -- can return the pitcher to his prior form. But put it this way: the Red Sox' path back to contention is a lot more complicated without a rejuvenated Lester leading the way.

The road back to respectability begins Friday night. The real journey begins next April.

David Price improves command, indicates he's pitching through ailment

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David Price improves command, indicates he's pitching through ailment

BOSTON — David Price and Rick Porcello showed improvement on back-to-back nights Friday and Saturday, important signs for the Red Sox after a difficult month for both pitchers prior to this homestand.

Price on Saturday night went six innings and allowed three runs, two earned, in a 6-3 loss to the Angels. He fanned five and his velocity has been consistently better this year than last year.

But the most important number was his walk total: one. He walked three batters in his previous start, and four in both of his starts prior.

“Two outings ago, the first start here in Fenway,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “There was better timing in his delivery and overall better separation over the rubber. And he carried that through I thought, even though there's a higher pitch count in Houston, and has been able to maintain it here. I can't say there was one specific thing. It's been more the timing over the rubber. And you're seeing him pitch out of the stretch exclusively. Just less moving parts in a better position to repeat it.”

After Price’s final inning, the telecast captured Price calling pitching coach Carl Willis into the tunnel. Neither Farrell nor Price detailed the conversation. 

“Yeah, everything was fine,” Farrell said of the conversation. “Everything is OK there.”

Price made it sound like he’s dealing with some sort of physical ailment, but was vague.

“There's a lot of stuff going on right now,” the pitcher said when asked about the desire to stay out there. “You don't want it to linger into the next start, or two or three weeks from now, and that's why we did what we did.”

Asked to elaborate, Price reinforced that the decision was to save his body for another day.

“You never want to come out of a game. But you have to look forward at the time,” Price said. “You don’t want today to cost you your next start or you know, the start after that. So that’s what happened.

“It has nothing to do with my elbow or anything like that. This is — you get past one thing and there’s another So that’s what it is.”

Price in New York in early June felt a blister develop on his ring finger. He missed an in-between start bullpen because of it.

Asked about the blister Saturday, Price said, “That one’s gone.”

Farrell indicated the blister was diminished, if not entirely gone.

“He's been dealing with that,” Farrell said. “I think while it's still present and maybe not as severe as it was when it first happened, I'm sure he's going to check on it occasionally."

Red Sox threaten late, but can't come back in 6-3 loss to Angels

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Red Sox threaten late, but can't come back in 6-3 loss to Angels

BOSTON - JC Ramirez rebounded from his shortest career start with six solid innings, Cameron Maybin doubled home a run and scored another and the Los Angeles Angels held off the Boston Red Sox 6-3 on Saturday night.

The Angels look for their fifth series win in their last six on Sunday.

Mitch Moreland hit a solo homer for the Red Sox, who lost for only the third time in their last 13 home games.

Ramirez (7-5) allowed one run and four hits with five strikeouts after lasting just three innings and giving up five runs in his previous start.

Blake Parker struck out pinch-hitter Chris Young with the bases loaded for the final out for his first save of the season after Boston scored twice in the ninth.

Red Sox manager John Farrell was ejected by third-base umpire and crew chief Bill Miller after Fernando Abad was called for a balk, scoring a run that made it 5-1 in the seventh.