KANSAS CITY -- When the Red Sox hitters stepped in against Royals' left-hander Bruce Chen on Thursday night, there were tantalizing pitches headed their way that seemingly took forever to reach the plate.
Chen basically operated at three speeds: Slow, slower and slowest. He changed his arm angles, stayed on the corners and never let the frustrated Red Sox come up for air. Sometimes, slower is better, and that was certainly the case as Chen worked 7 2/3 shutout innings against a high-powered Boston club that suddenly went dormant in a 5-1 Kansas City victory at Kauffman Stadium.
"It's not how hard you throw it, it's where you throw it," Red Sox left fielder Jonny Gomes said. "[Chen] would get in on our hands and then go away. The slower you throw, the less room for error you have."
Chen's arsenal, which is basically in the 83-89-mph range, resulted in a siege of weak infield popups and soft fly balls to the outfield. On a night when Jon Lester endured a rough first inning and allowed three runs, another magical Red Sox comeback seemed out of the question as Chen rolled merrily along.
Lester threw 41 pitches in the first, but rallied to match Chen's string of zeros from the second through the seventh. It was enough to save the bullpen some wear and tear, but not enough to position the Red Sox for a victory that would have kept Boston ahead of Tampa Bay in the loss column. The Red Sox still lead the American League East by two games, but both Boston and Tampa Bay have 47 losses.
Red Sox manager John Farrell shook up the lineup in the series opener with David Ortiz getting a night off and Gomes and Stephen Drew cast in the No. 4 and No. 5 hitting slots. But there was no shaking up Chen, who scattered five hits before leaving with two on and two outs in the eighth. Reliever Luke Hochevar retired Shane Victorino, and that was that.
"Chen mixed his first-pitch strikes to get ahead and then would elevate with a sidearm action to some right-handers," Farrell said. "He has been doing it to most everybody he has faced."
Chen spent most of the season in the bullpen. He has made five starts since being moved into the rotation and opponents are hitting .147 against him during that span. Barring a playoff matchup, the Red Sox will have until next season to figure out how to make solid contact against Chen's array of pitches.
Given the offensive challenges, the Red Sox needed to be sharp in the pitching and defense departments and there are problems in both areas as the Royals took quick control with a three-run first inning.
Lester surrendered a leadoff double to Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer advanced the runner by grounding to first. Lester worked carefully to Billy Butler and wound up walking him before Alex Gordon lofted a fly ball to left. Gomes wanted to stay back and run through the ball so he could have full momentum for a throw to the plate. But Gomes slipped when he tried to come forward and the ball dropped for an error as the run scored.
"I got behind it, but my plant leg slipped and took a chunk out of the grass," Gomes said. "I just couldn't make up the ground."
A 1-0 deficit became 3-0 when Mike Moustakas lashed a two-run single with the bases loaded and two outs.
"I have to do a better job of controlling that situation and not letting them get those other two," Lester said. "If they don't get those other two, maybe Chen pitches a little differently and maybe we get a couple of runs."
The Royals made it 5-0 in the eighth thanks to solo homers by Butler and Justin Maxwell against reliever Rubby De La Rosa. A double by Gomes and an RBI single by Drew in the ninth enabled Boston to avoid a shutout.
"That's a great hitting team over there and for Bruce to hold them to no runs through 7 2/3 innings is a fantastic job by him," Moustakas said. "He was on fire today."
Robert Falkoff is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.