FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There is a new group of faces in the clubhouse, from Mike Napoli to Jonny Gomes to Shane Victorino to Ryan Dempster to Joel Hanrahan to the phenom, outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. And there's a new manager, albeit a familiar face in John Farrell.
The Red Sox, however, don't need to erase their recent identity entirely. And nobody embodies that thought more than Jon Lester.
The lefty remains Boston's ace, the pitcher most capable of setting the tone not just for a rotation, but a season.
It said something that despite Lester's 9-14, 4.82 ERA line of 2012, Farrell -- his pitching coach from 2007-10 -- still handed him the ball for Monday's Opening Day start against the Yankees at 1:05 p.m. ET.
W: Lester L: Sabathia
"It will be New York -- Yankees and Red Sox," said Lester. "There will be a bunch of stuff going on. You just have to block it out and try to stay on your routine. That's why those routines are so important leading up to games."
Sure, Lester struggled last year, mightily at times. And he was as helpless as many of his teammates to stop the historic slide that took place in September 2011.
But there's a look of complete focus and determination in Lester these days -- one that reveals that he could just be on the cusp of returning to the form that made him one of the most dominant lefties in the Majors not so long ago.
At 29, Lester hardly figures to be on the back nine. In fact, it's possible he yet to pitch the best baseball of his career.
Considering he won a clinching game of the World Series in 2007, threw a no-hitter the next year and has won between 15-19 games four times, expectations have typically been high for Lester.
Where once he might have seemed burdened by that, Lester now exudes confidence and seems to enjoy the responsibility that comes with being the ace of the staff.
"I love it. Bring it on," Lester said. "What you guys expect of me is nothing next to what I expect of myself. I expect a lot. I try to live up to my own expectations before anybody else's. Obviously that's never going to happen. I take my job seriously, and I want to reach those."
To get back to where he once was, Lester went back to the drawing board -- starting in the middle of last season. His delivery was out of sync, and he worked to get back to what worked when he was successful.
Once his old pitching coach came back in Farrell -- not to mention a new pitching coach who is of like mind in Juan Nieves -- Lester seemed to put himself all the way back together this spring.
Boston Red Sox
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
|8||LF||Jackie Bradley Jr.|
"You can put it side by side. Really, even anybody that doesn't know a thing about baseball -- I mean, it's immediate. It's really bad," Lester said. "It's not good position to be in. I don't even know how the theory of me getting there worked out in my head. It wasn't good. But I'm finally getting back to being me."
And that is great news for the Red Sox. Farrell was so intent on Lester staying with the process this spring that he didn't tell him about the Opening Day nod until a few hours before he made his last Grapefruit League start.
"The way he was lined up, he was probably targeted all along. But at the same time, we didn't want that to be a focal point," Farrell said. "His work that was needed and the adjustments that he's continued to reinforce and repeat on the mound were the priorities. We felt like it was important to focus on the needs of Spring Training for every pitcher, including Jon before we got into the rotation. If everything went accordingly, our schedule would fall in line with him leading off, and he'll do just that on Monday."
Considering they will play without two important bats early in the season (David Ortiz and Stephen Drew), starting pitching will be vital for the Red Sox.
The hope is that Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront and John Lackey will follow a strong leading performance by Lester.
And even if the Red Sox's rotation is as balanced as they want it to be, there's a reason Lester is the one pitching first.
"A lot is written, a lot is made of an Opening Day assignment. That's a special day for everybody that's on a Major League roster," Farrell said. "Once we get past that -- and this may be cliche -- but that guy that walks to the mound is our No. 1 starter. I don't want to lose the importance of the five guys in the rotation. And yet Jon has been in the discussion of a very select group of pitchers in the Major Leagues, and he's pitching like that again."