BOSTON -- Red Sox starter Jon Lester was cruising, brilliantly holding up his end of the bargain in a taut matchup with Tampa Bay's ace pitcher, David Price, in a battle of two of the game's premier young left-handers Tuesday night at Fenway Park.
Lester was even beginning to dominate, whiffing four in a row at one point in retiring seven of eight batters he faced in the third, fourth and fifth innings.
But in a dizzying, frustrating span of five batters and a total of 12 pitches, Lester was nicked for four singles and a swinging-bunt fielder's choice as the Rays manufactured three quick runs.
And that little pop-gun flurry proved pivotal as Boston once again failed in the clutch and dropped a 3-2 decision to Tampa Bay. This latest loss plunged the underachieving Red Sox to a 2-9 record, the worst in the majors.
It also left the Sox bemoaning their bad luck, pointing to several hard-hit balls that didn't find holes and vowing that they are too talented to slump for much longer. It's too early, they say, to wave any kind of white flag even though Boston, the trendy pick to win 100 games this year, has to go 98-55 the rest of the way to reach the century mark.
"It is a little shocking," said left fielder Carl Crawford, who went 0-for-3 and was hit by a pitch in the game against his former team.
"But we understand the kind of team we have. We didn't expect this. We worry about it a little bit. It's an uphill battle but we just have to keep working."
Lester, meanwhile, could only shake his head at what has been transpiring for the Sox, including on Tuesday night.
"We're just not putting everything together," said Lester, who fell to 0-1 despite allowing just the three runs on seven hits, whiffing eight in his 109-pitch, seven-inning stint.
"Some nights it's the pitching, some nights it's the hitting, some nights it's both," he said. "We're just not clicking. I don't think guys are pressing. We just have to keep showing up and playing hard. It can't be like this all season. The guys had good approaches at the plate, but balls aren't finding holes right now."
That wasn't the case for the Rays in their pivotal fifth inning.
The Red Sox were leading 1-0 thanks to Darnell McDonald's first homer -- and first hit -- of the year, a no-doubter over the Green Monster in the third. The lead disappeared in a flash.
First, Kelly Shoppach grounded a hanging 0-and-2 breaking pitch up the middle for a one-out single. Dan Johnson followed with a looping single to left, and Elliot Johnson, the Rays' No. 9 hitter, scalded a single to left, filling the bases for Sam Fuld.
The Sox pulled the infield in because they knew they wouldn't be able to turn a double play if the Rays' speedster hit a grounder. The strategy appeared sound when Fuld sent a swinging bunt down the first-base line. Adrian Gonzalez charged it, but his throw to the plate was late, allowing Shoppach to score the tying run.
Gonzalez seemed to hesitate before throwing home, but he said it wasn't because he had trouble gripping the ball.
"It was a situation where I wanted to make a good throw," Gonzalez said. "It was a short throw. I know as a first baseman if you throw it a little high or a little low it's tough to adjust. I just wanted to make sure I hit [catcher Jason Varitek] in the chest."
He did hit Varitek in the chest. But Shoppach, no speedster, was safe.
"He beat it. That's just how baseball has gone for us. If he hits it a little harder, he's out at the plate," Gonzalez said.
Still, it was a tie game when Johnny Damon, 0-for-2 at that point, stepped in. Lester fanned Damon in each of his first two at-bats and got ahead in the fifth at 1-and-2. But Damon smacked the next pitch into center for a two-run single and a 3-1 Tampa Bay lead.
"That's the one pitch I would want back," Lester said. "It was on the right side of the plate, up a bit. He was able to put a pretty good swing on it. I don't really know what else to say about it -- four singles beat me. I'll take that every start -- beat me with all singles."
Those four singles -- the Rays totaled eight hits in the game -- were good enough to beat Lester because Price was on his game. McDonald's homer was the only dent the Sox put in him until Jed Lowrie's RBI double in the sixth. Price went 7 1/3 innings for his first win of the year.
Gonzalez, though, literally dented Price earlier in the inning. With Dustin Pedroia (double) on second, Gonzalez smashed a shot up the middle that glanced off Price's left leg. It ricocheted directly to second baseman Sean Rodriguez, who threw out the slow-footed Gonzalez at first.
"If that doesn't go right to the second baseman, we have runners at first and third and no outs and a chance for a big inning," Gonzalez lamented.
But that's not how things are going for the Red Sox right now. In their last scoring chance, Lowrie flied out to center with runners at first and second and two outs in the eighth against Joel Peralta, dropping the Sox to a woeful 7-for-52 with runners in scoring position over the past four games.
Pinch hitters Jacoby Ellsbury (whiff), J.D. Drew (whiff) and David Ortiz (flyout to right) couldn't get anything going against Kyle Farnsworth (second save) in the ninth as Boston fell to 2-3 on the 10-game homestand and into the basement in the American League East, one game behind the Rays (3-8).
"We were facing one of the best guys in the league, as they were," manager Terry Francona said. "You don't go into a game like that and figure to knock the ball around the ballpark. Jon was every bit as good as [Price] was. They strung some hits together. We took some good swings, hit some balls right at people. You need a break sometimes, and we didn't do enough."