Friday, April 3, 2009

Command trouble again plagues Lester

Blame it on the long spring training. Blame it on the cold. Go all Milli Vanilli on us and blame it on the rain. Dismiss it entirely if you want. It is still spring training, after all.

But here are the numbers for Jon Lester in his last two starts: Nine innings pitched, nine walks.

"I really couldn't tell you what was going on," the lefthander said before departing Citi Field for the evening. "I really didn't have a feel for my body, for pitches. It was one of those nights, I guess, of battling myself from the beginning. The good thing is that it was an exhibition game. I could walk away from it and not worry about the results and it doesn't mean anything. In five days, we'll try to make an adjustment and do a little bit better."

Said manager Terry Francona, "I know he didn't command, but he still competes and doesn't give in. It looked like, from the very beginning, he was leaving some balls up on his arm side, and then he overcompensated a couple of times. I'm glad it was a spring-training game and not a regular-season game. ...

"That happens more than people realize during the course of a whole season."

It's important to take that with a grain of salt, given that it's in Francona's job description to downplay concerns about his players. In this case, though, he's not just blowing smoke. Bouts with command trouble do happen -- especially in the early going.

Josh Beckett walked four in 4 2/3 innings in his first start a year ago en route to five earned runs. Tim Wakefield walked five hitters twice in his first five starts. Daisuke Matsuzaka habitually walks five batters an inning. (OK, that's an exaggeration. But he did walk at least five hitters in eight of his 29 starts a year ago.)

And a year ago, Lester walked 15 hitters in his first 20 1/3 innings -- including five in 4 1/3 innings in his a rough start at Cleveland. Not surprisingly, those 20 1/3 innings netted him a pair of losses and a 5.31 ERA.

The rest of the way, though, the lanky lefty walked 51 hitters in 190 innings -- and he went 15-4 with a 2.98 ERA.

Lester walked 66 hitters in 210 1/3 regular-season innings a year ago; he then walked five hitters in 26 2/3 postseason innings. Before last Saturday, he had walked just two hitters in his first 10 2/3 spring innings -- though most of those innings, of course, came in short stints.

He also struck out eight in four innings in a minor-league game on March 14, a game in which he threw strikes on 39 of his 62 pitches. The next day, he officially signed a five-year, $30 million contract extension.

Since he signed that contract, though, his command appears to have deserted him. He dismissed his rough outing a week ago against the Phillies -- "I wasn't as wild as the walks said," he said. "I was around where I wanted to be, and some calls could have gone either way." -- and insisted everything still was on track.

But he's averaging a walk an inning in his last two starts and there's not much time left to make changes to his delivery. He's scheduled to start against Tampa Bay on April 8, just five days hence.

"We need to make some adjustments between now and then," he said. "But I think it's small adjustments, something that's minor and nothing that's too big of a deal. I'm not too worried about it. Once we get to Fenway and get that adrenaline going and get into that extra gear, everything will be fine."

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