Lester then casually mentioned to Francona that he could pitch a day early -- on three days' rest for the first time in his career.
With hardly any other options -- and game time approaching within a couple of hours -- Francona took Lester up on his selfless gesture. As it turns out, Lester (five innings, nine hits, four runs, two walks, one strikeout) didn't pitch well enough to win, but his flexibility was appreciated even though the Red Sox fell the Angels, 6-4, on Wednesday night.
"He stepped up, and we made sure he knew that," said Francona. "I don't think he was happy with the results, because we didn't win, but he gave us five innings. When he left, it's 4-4 and we had a chance. It didn't work out for us, but we also didn't ruin our bullpen."
The loss snapped a six-game winning streak for the Sox.
Things are getting ridiculously unpredictable these days at Fenway. Just one day earlier, Josh Beckett had been the one scratched at the last minute and David Pauley came up from Pawtucket to pitch. The Red Sox were able to come back from a four-run deficit to win that game, 7-6. This time, however, they fell short.
Down, 4-2, entering the bottom of the fifth, David Ortiz unloaded for a two-run homer into the box seats in right. It was Ortiz's 211th homer in a Boston uniform, moving him into ninth place on the club's all-time list. In the more immediate scheme of things, Ortiz has recovered nicely from his slump, hitting in nine of his last 10 games at a .309 clip.
As much as Ortiz's equalizer was appreciated, the game didn't stay tied long.
Craig Hansen, who was called up from Triple-A Pawtucket before the game, was thrust into a tie game to start the sixth. Though his pitches seemed to have far more bite to them than when he was last with the Red Sox in 2006, he made a mistake with two outs and nobody on, and Casey Kotchman made him pay for it in the form of a solo homer.
"[It was an] inside fastball, but it got too much plate," said Hansen, who was sent right back to Pawtucket after the game to make room on the roster for Justin Masterson, who will start Thursday's game in what will be his Major League debut.
Considering the tough spot he was put in, it wasn't all that surprising that Lester didn't have his best stuff. Just two batters in, Gary Matthews Jr. crushed a solo homer to left.
"I don't think it had that big of an effect on me," said Lester of the short rest. "My body felt fine or else I wouldn't have offered to do that. I don't really know. It's the first time I've ever pitched on short rest. It was different. There wasn't any pain or soreness; it just didn't feel like everything was under me."
The Angels tacked on another in the second on an RBI double to left by Maicer Izturis. The Red Sox cut down a potential second run on that play when Manny Ramirez hit cutoff man Julio Lugo, who then fired a perfect strike to get Kotchman.
The Red Sox got one run back in the bottom of the second on an RBI single up the middle by Lugo. But just as soon as they chipped into the lead, the Angels extended it again on an RBI single to center by Erick Aybar.
Then it was Boston's turn to bounce back. Kevin Cash, thrust into a starting role the past few days with Jason Varitek sick, led off the third with a double to left. Jacoby Ellsbury followed with a single to left, putting Dustin Pedroia in position to drive a run home on a sac fly that cut the Angels' lead to 3-2.
Once again, Matthews unloaded against Lester, this time drilling a solo shot to left to lead off the fifth. Thanks to Ortiz, Lester took a no-decision instead of a loss.
After giving the Sox five innings and 80 pitches, Lester exited.
"Tito told me before the game that they were going to cut it short, regardless of how good or bad I was doing, and keep a pretty strict pitch count," Lester said. "It's early in the season. They don't want to set me back with an injury, so they were very cautious."
Though the Red Sox aren't much into moral victories, Francona couldn't help but be proud of the way his team competed under tough circumstances. Aside from Matsuzaka not being able to pitch, Varitek was sidelined for the fourth day in a row with the flu. Reliever Manny Delcarmen is also sick and couldn't go for a second day in a row. Kevin Youkilis was out with a lower back strain.
And still, the Sox were in it the whole way.
"We're kind of fighting this as it comes," said Francona. "It seems to grab someone different every day. [The] doctors are dong what they can, and everybody is trying to heed the best advice and win the game at the same time and field a team."
"We showed up to win. I was proud of our guys' effort. I don't think you can just be proud when you win. I think we're happier when we win, but a lot of guys are digging deep, and we'll continue to do that. So the silver lining -- not tonight that we lost -- but I understand how our ballclub operates, and I feel good about that."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.