Lester still honored to start Opening Day

Lester still honored to start Opening Day
March 30, 2014, 5:45 pm
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BALTIMORE -- Jon Lester is usually all business. He doesn't smile a lot, doesn't show much emotion on the mound beyond the occasional staredown of an umpire.
But for the veteran lefty, there's no denying that drawing the Opening Day assignment -- as Lester will on Monday afternoon at Camden Yards -- is a privilege, "a great honor'' as he labeled it.
And just because he's opened each of the previous three Red Sox season openers doesn't make Monday's any less special.
"Words can't really describe how much this day means to me personally,'' said Lester, "to be Opening Day starter for the Boston Red Sox. With that, I take great pride. You want to set the tone for the rest of these guys. You want to get these guys off on the right foot.''
Lester did so in last season's opener, out-dueling CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees. That was the beginning of a comeback season for Lester, who rebounded from a nightmarish 2012 season and won 15 games for the Sox, once more topping 200 innings.
But if Lester's first start was telling, his October was revelatory. Lester pitched as well as anyone in the game in October, going 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA, including two World Series wins against the St. Louis Cardinals. Were it not for David Ortiz, Lester surely would have been Series MVP.
Now, five months later, perhaps there will be some carryover from Lester's dominant October that will translate to this 2014.
"Confidence is there,'' said Lester, "something that I don't think has ever wavered for me. But any time you have success like that on a stage like that, you can always put that in your back pocket and draw from it at a later time.''
If nothing else, Lester will take the mound Monday with a better appreciation and understanding on how to handle an Opening Day assignment. He's been there before -- several times -- and while it's hardly old hat, it's at least familiar.
"It's just like anything else,'' said Lester. "You get to deal with it and you get to experience, so you know what to expect. There's no what-ifs, or 'How's this going to go?' Each park is different, as far as the festivities and what they do on Opening Day, so with that being said, you go out there and you just do your routine.
"Whatever it is, any time you experience something, you can use that at a later date.''
At 30, Lester is plenty experienced, with six full seasons -- and parts of two others -- under his belt. He's got 100 wins and two World Series rings and has pretty much seen it all.
It's all part of a veteran pitcher's evolution. He's older, yes, but also wiser.
"Anytime you grow older,'' he said, "you get more innings, you get smarter. You get to face some of the same hitters over and over again. You have a lot of information at your fingertips. I'm a lot more comfortable in who I am as a pitcher. Obviously, 2012 helped that. Changing away from who I was is not a good thing and getting back to who I am is.''
As spring training drew to a close, Lester and the Red Sox "hit the pause button'' -- in the words of GM Ben Cherington -- on contract extension talks. There was no rancor and no bruised feelings, but also, no new deal for Lester, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the current season.
While talks were being conducted during March, Lester seemed detached from them, checking in with agents Sam and Seth Levinson only periodically.
And now that talks have, for the time being at least, broken off?
"I wouldn't say that completely leaves your mind,'' said Lester of the effect it might have on him. "It's kind of like having an elephant in the room. We all know the circumstances with this year. I would like to think I'm pretty good at dealing with outside things. When I'm at the park, I'm pretty good at dealing with outside things. When I'm at the park, I'm thinking about what I need to do to get better and worry about the other stuff when I'm done.
"It is what it is. I can't change it. It's something that's going be there. There are going to be questions and I'll have to give answers. But it's something that we'll deal with along the way.''
And for now, there's other business at hand. Starting Monday afternoon.