NEW YORK -- We can't say that Jon Lester didn't warn us, even though it's probably not the kind of message they want to hear at 1-800-KaBloom.
"It's not going to be all roses the whole season,'' the Boston Red Sox left-hander said no more than 10 days ago.
And maybe that makes for an even more compelling storyline than the one the Red Sox authored at the beginning of the season, when Lester ran off six wins in his first nine decisions, Clay Buchholz ran off seven in his first 10 and Sox manager John Farrell looked like he'd never be sitting at the table with anything less than two aces in his hand.
Impressive? Sure. A sign that the Sox could turn things around from last season's last-place finish faster than anyone anticipated? Absolutely.
But it's never that easy. We're seeing it with Lester, who has two losses and a no-decision in his past three starts after Friday night's 4-1 loss to the New York Yankees, and inevitably we're going to see it with Buchholz, too. It might have already begun. The Sox hope Buchholz's shoulder is back to normal -- they all say it is -- but final confirmation will not come until he takes the mound against the Yankees on Sunday night.
It's a guarantee that Buchholz will hit a rough patch, too, during which balls that were being caught fall in, swings that resulted in popups square up as home runs, pitches that were called strikes are called balls and 0-and-2 cutters result not in a hack and miss but hit the batter's back foot, resulting in a free pass -- as it did for Lester on Friday, when his pitch found David Adams' foot, an outcome that led to a run. But the ultimate success of the Red Sox this season might very well hinge less on how they fare when Lester and Buchholz are on top of their game but on how well their best pitchers fight through these stretches. Whether they can keep the Sox in games even when things aren't going their way and regain their stride just when they're needed most. Like CC Sabathia did for the Yankees on Friday night.
Sabathia is still a very good pitcher, but the innings have taken their toll. The velocity isn't what it was. There are nights the command isn't there. He's not an automatic "W" anymore. He came into Friday night's game with just one win in his past seven starts and had been knocked around for seven runs in seven innings by the Tampa Bay Rays in his last start.
But take a poll in the Yankee clubhouse, and it's guaranteed that CC was the guy they wanted on the hill Friday night to stem the tide of a five-game losing streak that included an embarrassing four-game sweep by the crosstown Mets, the kind of humiliation that would have had George Steinbrenner passing out blindfolds and cigarettes the next day.
That's the kind of confidence Sabathia inspires, and for good reason: Friday night, he held the Sox to a run on six hits in 7⅓ innings. He struck out 10. He didn't walk a batter. You know how many times that's been done against the Red Sox? Just five times since the start of the 2006 season, and the first time since David Price whiffed 13 and walked none last season against the worst September roster ever assembled, to paraphrase the Sacred Heart athletic director.
The last Yankee to do so was Andy Pettitte on July 6, 2003, nearly 10 years ago.
Sabathia buried the Sox with sliders, tormented them with changeups and sinkers, kept them off balance with a four-seamer that might lack hop but was more dependable than any GPS in zeroing in on location.
"You don't really expect anything less from him,'' Lester said. "He threw the hell out of the ball tonight.''
The Sox walked more than any team in the big leagues this May. They're second overall this season, but for the second time in four games, they ran into a lefty who gave them no quarter: Philadelphia's Cliff Lee, who had no walks in eight innings Tuesday night, and CC on Friday.
Lester has had nights like that this season, none better than the one-hit shutout he threw against the Toronto Blue Jays three weeks ago. This wasn't one of them. He walked the leadoff man in the first, the second, and the sixth and hit Adams' back foot to start the fifth. He hung a breaking ball to Laynce Nix in the second -- the one pitch he'd most like to have back -- that resulted in an RBI single as part of a two-run Yankee rally.
He threw 116 pitches, the majority of them out of the stretch. Of the 27 Yankees he faced, 11 reached base.
"The delivery felt fine, the arm felt fine, but for whatever reason -- maybe trying to be too fine with the cutter in, or trying to hit the black on the outside corner, or trying to throw too good a curveball -- you have those nights where, for whatever reason, nothing is clicking in the end,'' Lester said.
And yet, you looked up, and Lester was still in the game in the seventh inning, the Sox down by only a pair, the game not decided for certain until Mariano Rivera stranded two runners on base in the ninth.
These were the games last season that Lester too often allowed to get out of hand -- a four-spot here, a five-spot there, a loss of focus, an oil spill of frustration about ball-strike calls -- an element of emotional uncertainty that made it impossible for the Sox to trust in him the way the Yankees trust in CC.
Games like these, while far from perfect, can do as much for restoring that trust as when Lester is at his dominant best. The same, of course, holds true for Buchholz. The last three starts for Lester have been flawed, but the Sox trailed by no more than two runs in any of them when he left.
Most pitchers talk about giving their team a chance to win every time they go out there. The best pitchers do so even when they're less than their best. What to do when it isn't working?
"Grind,'' Lester said. "Try to go as deep into the game as you can. You don't want to give up in the third [inning] and say, 'OK, bullpen, it's your turn.'''
It's an approach that can ripple through an entire staff and has long been a guiding principle for tough men like Ryan Dempster and John Lackey. But it works best when it starts at the top, the place occupied by Lester and Buchholz. A rendezvous with October may depend on it.