07/23/07 11:45 PM ET
Lester a study in determination
Red Sox southpaw punctuates special night with a victory
The real victory was getting back to the mound as a Major League pitcher. But Jon Lester won twice on Monday night.
Just 11 months after he was diagnosed with cancer, a treatable form of anaplastic large cell lymphoma, Jon Lester once again took the ball for the Boston Red Sox. There was going to be a human triumph here no matter what happened on the field.
But Lester produced a pitching performance that was, emblematic of this whole process, characterized by quiet determination and will. He deserved a happy return. But he took care of that himself with the quality of his performance.
Lester's return was going to be an emotional event for the Red Sox regardless of the outcome. But it also became a victorious event, 6-2, over the Cleveland Indians.
Lester, 23, was 7-2 in 15 starts last season before the cancer diagnosis. He had made a strong impression when he was healthy. The quiet dignity with which he responded to the news of the diagnosis made an even more lasting impression.
"We thought Jon was a pretty special young man before all this transpired," manager Terry Francona said. "To handle it with the grace he did, he's a tough guy not to pull for."
The signature moment of this return to a Major League mound came, fittingly enough, not in the easy innings but in the most difficult one. The Red Sox had seized an early 5-0 lead. Lester had been working well, but Grady Sizemore got him for a two-run home run in the third. Sizemore is one of the best players in the game today, so this was not exactly a sign of vulnerability.
But in the fourth, Lester's exceptional command deserted him, at least temporarily. A leadoff double was followed by a walk. Lester struck out Franklin Gutierrez to ease the situation, but then walked the No. 8 hitter, Kelly Stoppach, to load the bases.
Josh Barfield hit a comeback grounder to the mound. Lester managed to knock it down and get a force at the plate. And then, it was Sizemore again. The tension escalated, the count went to 2-2 and then Lester struck out Sizemore swinging and pounded his fist into his glove.
This crisis was nothing like the real-life crisis that Jon Lester faced, but as baseball crises go, it was severe enough. Bases loaded, one out, you have to face Grady Sizemore after he just hit a home run.
"We've seen him do that before," Francona said. "He doesn't give in. He made pitches. The guy who took him deep, he got him out. He lost it, but then he reeled it back in. And then he gathered himself and gave us two more innings."
Lester departed after the sixth, having given up two runs on five hits, walking three, and striking out six. That's a quality start under normal circumstances. This was a very impressive start under normal circumstances. Under these circumstances it's a comeback player of the year start. And it was a start against the Cleveland Indians, who ranked third in the American League in runs scored and first in home runs.
Lester, when asked what the best moment was for him in his return, gave the best possible answer, saying:
"Just pitching. Just to be able to pitch again and not worry about anything. It's great to be back."
This was a big night for all of the Boston Red Sox. They all could share the joy at the return of Jon Lester, a return which was fully healthy and fully successful.
"It was awesome to see him back to his normal self," said Manny Delcarmen, who recorded the first save of his Major League career. "It was great."
Lester said that it was "very emotional," for him going into the game, but once he threw his first pitch, he felt like he was back to normal. And back to baseball.
These are two of the American League's best teams, two of baseball's best teams. It is difficult to say that the Cleveland Indians were supposed to lose this opener of a 10-game homestand, simply because this was the way the story was supposed to work out for Jon Lester. Francona noted that, too.
But in the end, the manager said: "It was supposed to be his night, I think."
That's the way it felt, that's the way it looked, that's the way it actually was. It was Jon Lester's night because he deserved it twice. Once for the way he handled adversity; with dignity and determination. And once for the way he pitched when he got the chance to return to a big league mound.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.