Lester's long road 6 years between Series starts

Lester's long road 6 years between Series starts
October 22, 2013, 11:45 pm
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BOSTON - The last time the Red Sox won a World Series game, Jon Lester was, improbably, the starting and winning pitcher.

After a six-year hiatus from the Series, the Red Sox are back, and for Game 1 against the St. Louis Cardinals, Lester is again the starter.
     
But an awful lot has happened - to Lester and the Red Sox -- since that night in Denver, when the Sox completed a four-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies to clinch their second title in the span of four seasons.
     
That season, Lester missed most of the first half of the year recovering from a bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which had been diagnosed the previous summer.
     
Lester made two appearances in the American League Championship Series -- one good, one bad -- but as the Sox took a 3-0 lead over the Rockies, they changed plans.

Instead of going with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who was battling shoulder issues and whom they feared might have a tough time with his signature pitch in the thin air of Denver, and went with Lester.
     
In capping his comeback season, Lester pitched brilliantly, tossing 5 2/3 scoreless innings while allowing just three hits and the young lefty became the third pitcher in World Series history to win a series-clinching game in his first post-season start.
     
On Wednesday night, when he takes the ball for Game 1, it will be a competely different experience.
     
"Different ends for me,'' said Lester Tuesday. "Different circumstances at the time. I was kind of getting thrown into that position; wasn't expected to get a start.  And kind  of fortunate to get that opportunity. I mean, I just remember nerves. I remember just the anxiety of trying to just get to the field and calm down a little bit. It was at a different point in my career, I think, too.
     
"Obviously, [Wednesday] there will still be nerves, there will still be all that to be expected.  But I think I know who I am a little bit more as a pitcher and what to expect from myself and what to expect from the crowd and all the different things that go along with getting a start in the World Series. We talk about every start is a learning experience, and if I can go back to that one and draw something, that will hopefully help me [Wednesday], then that would be great.''
     
Winning a World Series was uplifting enough for Lester's teammates that night at Coors Field. But the fact that Lester was on the mound for the victory, after all he had overcome, added to the night.
     
"It was very emotional,'' said David Ortiz, one of three Red Sox teammates of Lester's that night still with the team. "Just to watch this young kid who just beat cancer, being out there in the World Series, pitching hit butt off. For me personally, I was looking at the future of the organization and thought we had a great future coming up. Being so young, as, he was, at the time, and what he went through, and knowing  what kind of person is...it was very emotional.
    
"I have some good memories, just watching him perform out there that night.''
     
Dustin Pedroia, too, remembers that is was almost accomplishment enough to be on the mound and healthy. That Lester was also good enough to throw 5 2/3 shutout innings bordered on the remarkable.
     
"The way he pitched...it was perfect,'' said Pedroia of the experience. "I've been around him all the way up through the minor leagues. I don't think he's changed that much. When I was in Double-A playing behind him, I still thought every time he took the ball, we were going to win. I don't view him as any different than 10 years ago.''
     
Still, much has happened to Lester since. Now cancer-free, he has since won 89 games for the Red Sox, establishing himself as one of the game's more dependable -- and durable lefties. Even in 2009, when the Sox last made the postseason, Lester was the choice as their Game 1 starter.
     
In the interim, however, Lester experienced more growing pains. The team, too, has seemingly mirrored his performance. When Lester pitched well in the first five months of 2011, the Red Sox were the best team in the American League. When, on the other hand, he won just once in that fateful September swoon, the Red Sox went 7-20 and coughed up a playoff spot.
     
Worse, Lester was later revealed to have been one of the pitchers guilty of consuming chicken and beer in the clubhouse during games, a symbol of the team's entitlement and lax professionalism.
     
And when the team bottomed out under Bobby Valentine in 2012, so, too, did Lester, enduring a 14-loss season with an ERA of 4.82, the worst of his career.
     
No single player had more to prove this spring when the Red Sox reported to Fort Myers. Building on some adjustments he made to his delivery in the final two months of 2012, Lester re-established himself as a front-line starter.
     
Once again, he stood tall in his delivery and threw downhill, ensuring that his fastball would stay in the bottom part of the strike zone. He began the season with a 6-2 start before a six-week downturn in which he failed to command his cutter well.
     
But given some additional rest at the All-Star break, Lester came back strong in the second half. In the second half, Lester was 7-2 with a 2.45 ERA in 13 starts. He then pitched the Sox to a win in Game 1 of the Division Series against Tampa Bay.
     
In the ALCS opener, he allowed just run over 6 1/3 innings, but because Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers bullpen blanked his teammates, he was saddled with a tough-luck loss.
     
In Game 5, Lester was less sharp, allowing two runs in 5 1/3 innings, but backed by better support, picked up the win.
     
Entering Wednesday, Lester sports a superb 2.34 ERA in nine postseason career starts.
     
Game 1 will bring everything full circle. From recovering cancer patient to fully healthy front-line starter. He's older and wiser now, more experienced and more accomplished.
     
It's a long way from his last World Series start, to be sure.
     
"To be on the mound in the clinching game of a World Series environment," said Red Sox manager John Farrell,  the team's pitching coach in 2007. "I mean, that's the stuff that stories and movies are made of. There's no question he hasn't forgotten the journey he's traveled.''