Lester's comeback continues with Game 1 start

Lester's comeback continues with Game 1 start
October 3, 2013, 5:00 pm
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(AP Photo)

BOSTON -- Just when Jon Lester was getting accustomed to making regular trips to the postseason, the fortunes of the Red Sox started to slide.

After taking part in the playoffs in each of his first three full seasons (2007-09), the Red Sox missed out on October baseball in each of the last three years. And last season, after the Red Sox bottomed out and Lester endured the worst year of his career (''horrendous all the way around") it got to be too much.

Forget not taking part in October baseball -- Lester couldn't bring himself to watch.

"Usually,'' said Lester Thursday, "I watch the playoffs if I'm home, [but] I didn't watch a game (last October). I turned it off, tried to get my brain back on track.''

But Friday afternoon, Lester will do more than watch. He'll have the best vantage point in all of Fenway-- the mound -- as the Red Sox' Game 1 starter against the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Division Series.

"To be back where we're at,'' said Lester, "and not only be back but to have the season we had, was obviously very gratifying. I think going through what we went through the past couple of years, obviously makes [you appreciate just] getting to the playoffs.''

Lester, of course, is doing more than just getting there. On a talented staff, he's been given the assignment of starting Game 1.

"It's a big honor,'' said Lester, who also opened the postseason for the Red Sox in 2008 and '09. "I'm very excited, especially -- and I always say this -- for an organization with the history that goes along with it and the guys that have gotten that honor in the past. It's a big honor for me to have my name up there with those guys.

"I [want] to go out and bust my butt and give the team best chance to win [Friday] and set the tone for the other starters.''

Lester pitched the postseason opener in Anaheim in both 2008 and '09, but this assignment marks the first time he'll pitch a Game 1 in Boston.

"That will be exciting,'' said Lester. "It's going to be electric here [Friday] afternoon. There's nothing like a playoff atmosphere. You can't duplicate it, you can't describe it. It's just a different beast when you step out on that mound. You know the other team is more focused, they're ready to go.

"You know you have to step up your game a little bit and be more focused than than the other guy. There's really nothing like it.''

It's perhaps fitting that Lester will get the ball for Game 1, since his career path, more than anyone else's on the current roster, has mirrored that of the franchise for the last three seasons.

When things were going well in the first five months of 2011, Lester was 14-6 with a 3.05 ERA. When the Sox nose-dived in September, Lester won just once in the final month.

A year ago, when the Sox dropped to the A.L. East basement and experienced their worst season since 1965, Lester, similarly, had his worst year in the big leagues.

And now that the Sox have rebounded to finish with the league's best record, so, too has Lester, setting a career high in innings pitches while winning 15 games, tops on the staff.

"The body of work really compares pretty consistently to [his best seasons],'' said manager John Farrell. "He's one of the top starting pitchers in the league. He's done a great job righting his own ship, so to speak, after a late-May/early-June stretch of starts where things didn't work out as well.''

But the Sox gave Lester some extra time off coming out of the All-Star break and the rest seemed to revitalize him. Additionally, Lester made some adjustments with his cutter, which seemed to regress in midseason.

"He finished the year extremely strong,'' Farrell said. "He was powerful with a good performance. We're looking at home to lead the way here in October.''

Lester is all too familiar with the Rays, having faced them regularly the last few seasons. But Friday's opponent could have been Cleveland and it wouldn't have made much difference.

"It comes down to [figuring] out your game plan against them,'' said Lester, "whatever it may be, and [then] you need to go out and try to execute your pitches. You have to be down in the zone, especially here at Fenway. You just have to execute pitches, try to keep the guys within reach, especially with caliber of the pitching staff they have. And that's really it.''

Sounds simple, and in a sense it is. And it sure better than avoiding the postseason altogether out of disgust.