Lauded as the new ace of Boston's rotation coming into the start, Lester enjoyed little of the success he'd had during his brief career in the postseason. Challenged with Lester's fastball, the Rays returned serve without difficulty, stroking the southpaw for four runs on four hits over his first three innings, including two home runs.
"It's like I've said all along -- execute pitches," Lester said. "I didn't do that in that inning, and I paid for it. Hopefully, the next time I can go out and make an adjustment and execute pitches when I need to. Hopefully, the outcome is different."
The 24-year-old lefty had pitched 24 2/3 consecutive innings in the postseason without allowing an earned run, including 14 frames in the AL Division Series against the Angels.
Including two appearances last season, Lester had run his ALCS streak to 16 innings.
"That stuff happens," Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay said. "I think some people come to expect you'll just go out there every day and be a robot and do it. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Just like with Josh [Beckett], we'd take him again, for sure."
Lester vs. Rays in 2008
The Rays manufactured an unearned run against Lester, who hadn't allowed a leadoff hitter to reach base all postseason entering Monday's start, when Evan Longoria worked a walk to open the second inning, moved up on a single and a passed ball, then scored on Dioner Navarro's run-scoring groundout.
"You can't give them momentum like that," Lester said.
And, as Lester worried they would, the Rays piled on in the third. After Jason Bartlett singled, Akinori Iwamura doubled off the left-field wall and Upton connected on his fifth home run of the postseason, slugging it over the Monster Seats and onto the street below.
One batter later and with long man Paul Byrd already warming in the Red Sox's bullpen, Longoria reached Lester for his fourth postseason homer and second of the ALCS, driving it over the wall in left-center field.
"It certainly wasn't his sharpest outing, but ... again, you put up four [runs] in an inning," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Other than that, he was actually OK."
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said that location wasn't as much of a problem as the execution of the two home run pitches Lester made.
"Jonny can pitch up -- he's got the ability to do that," Varitek said. "We've just got to be able to change speeds and use both sides of the plate. All in all, give them credit. They came out and they swung the bats."
After the third inning, Lester settled in, limiting the Rays to two hits over the next 2 2/3 frames before he was lifted following a four-pitch walk to Rocco Baldelli in the sixth.
Jon Lester's game-by-game playoff stats
|* -- pitched in relief|
"He is very good," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Don't be deceived -- he's very good. We just had a relatively good night. We had some good at-bats at crucial moments. Three-run homers are nice to get. We were very fortunate with that. I have a lot of respect for him, and this is one of the better young left-handers in the American League and all of baseball, actually."
But with Matt Garza firing bullets for the Rays, the damage was done, as the Red Sox trailed, 5-0, through three innings en route to a 9-1 defeat.
"Offensively, we didn't get anything done, anyway," Red Sox first baseman Mark Kotsay said, "so regardless of how Lester pitched or how well he didn't pitch, we didn't score enough runs to win a baseball game tonight. That lies on us as an offense."
If Lester pitches again in this series, it would come in a deciding Game 7 at Tropicana Field. The Red Sox will have to make up a one-game deficit to put the ball back in Lester's left hand, a scenario few thought was a possibility when the early-afternoon shadows first crept into Fenway.
"I hate to say it happens, but it did happen," Varitek said. "I look forward to him always getting the ball, regardless of what happened tonight. We're down, 2-1, but we're still in this."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.