Lester's first spring start a sign 2012 is behind him

Lester's first spring start a sign 2012 is behind him
February 24, 2013, 4:15 pm
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Jon Lester pitched two solid innings against the Cardinals on Sunday.

(AP Images)

JUPITER, Fla. -- For Jon Lester, 2012 is already in the rear view mirror. On Sunday, when he made his first spring training start, it seemed to be safely in the past.
     
Lester experienced his worst season in the big leagues last year, going 9-14 with an ERA of 4.82. You name it, and the numbers were bad: the hits were higher, the strikeouts lower. Every statistical measurement was, one way or another, heading in the wrong direction.
     
And then there was the team's own failure, with 93 losses and a last-place finish.
     
All of it was forgettable, and Lester focused on flushing the 2012 season from his mind, a journey that began last winter.
     
"That's kind of the nice thing about having that break -- you can step away," said Lester. "It's a completely blank page and you're starting over. That's when you can get back into the things you were doing before and start fresh."
     
Lester's makeover actually began late last season when he corrected some mechanical flaws. He stopped swinging his lead leg as much and corrected an issue that saw him collapsing his back leg.
     
Together, those defects in his delivery flattened out his cut fastball and made his curveball loopier.
     
"I think more than anything," said John Farrell, "it's probably the late action in the strike zone. It caused the cutter to become longer and hitters were able to track it longer. More than anything, flattened his fastball out."
     
Now, Lester is back to staying on top of the ball and throwing it more downhill, much like he did from 2008-2011, when he was among the best lefthanders in the game.
     
But it was hard for Lester to self-correct in between starts in the middle of a season gone wrong, and much easier to do it on back fields and in exhibition games.
     
"It's nice that there's no outcome (now)," he said. "You don't have that 'L' next to your name. You can have a 600.00 ERA in spring and it doesn't matter. You can go out and really focus on those things and work on being consistent."
     
If Lester can successfully keep his arm angle up "and get my hand on top of the ball, it creates that downhill plane. And that's where the ball is down at the thigh-knee area and it's got that little extra when it gets to home plate. That's what we're looking for."
     
It helps, of course, that Lester has Farrell as his manager. Farrell was Lester's pitching coach for his best seasons, and even though he's got other concerns, Farrell has passed on some important checkpoints to new pitching coach Juan Nieves.
     
"John is able to give (Nieves) a head start," said Lester. "John helps Juan get kind of ahead of the game."

Lester's spring debut, in a 5-3 win over St. Louis, was short, but impressive. He pitched two innings and retired all six hitters he faced, recording one strikeout.
     
"It was good," said Lester. "It was good to go through the whole routine of getting ready for a game and then get into a game and get up-and-down a few times. It was good."
     
Of the 24 pitches he threw, all but one were fastballs as Lester "just tried to get my feet under me and get back into the rhythm of pitching, keep the ball down in the zone -- all the things we talk about that I didn't do last year."

"It was a good two innings of work for him today," Farrell said. "A good starting point."    

Like John Lackey the day before, Lester didn't bother to mix in breaking pitches in his first start, throwing almost exclusively fastballs with one changeup.
     
"Today, (fastball) command was not exactly great -- which is to be expected," said Lester. "The more fastballs you throw, the more arm strength you build up and the breaking stuff will become a little bit easier to manipulate and repeat."
     
But Lester's makeover isn't only physical. There's a mental aspect to what he's trying to do.
     
"For me, when the season ended, it was just important (to take a break mentally as it was physically),'' he said, "to get away. The last three months, I pounded away on myself, trying to figure out what was going wrong."
     
The 2012 season was a bad one, but Lester is hopeful that lessons have been learned.
     
"You obviously learn a lot from things that don't go your way," he said. "You learn a lot about yourself, a lot about your teammates. I don't like going out every five days and getting my ass kicked; I like to win.
     
"I don't know if sucking (automatically) sets you up for a good season. If it does, great. I don't want to do it again. It humbles you. For the biggest thing was the embarrassment of not being me. Hopefully, that puts me in position to have a good season."