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09/28/08 11:20 PM ET

Francona shows faith in Lester

Manager goes with no-hit wiz in Boston's playoff opener

BOSTON -- Last year, Jon Lester was a feel-good story, and rightfully so. How many baseball players go from chemotherapy treatments to the clinching win of the World Series in a span of less than 12 months?

Though, in many ways, the Lester story is one that is one that will keep on giving, the real hook this year is that he's become a left-handed force every fifth day.

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Lester's rise to dominance officially began on May 19, when he threw a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals. And he pitched at such a high level from thereafter that Red Sox manager Terry Francona had no hesitation to make Lester his Game 1 starter for the American League Division Series against the host Angels Wednesday night at 10 ET on TBS.

Josh Beckett likely would have made the start if not suffering a right oblique injury that has pushed him to Game 3. But even before the news was disclosed about Beckett's injury, there was plenty of public debate wondering if Lester would get the opening nod.

Lester, 24, has been consistently effective and durable in this breakout season. The lefty has sure made the Red Sox look good for feeling so hesitant to include him in a trade for Johan Santana, who instead wound up going to the Mets.

In 33 starts, Lester reeled off a 16-6 record, a 3.21 ERA, a staff-leading 20 quality starts and 210 1/3 innings.

"It feels good," said Lester. "Early on, I struggled a little bit in April and the beginning of May. I hit a good streak there for a couple of months. I really felt comfortable with myself as a pitcher mechanically and confidence-wise. I felt like I kept building."

At times, catcher Jason Varitek has appeared to be as gratified by Lester's season as the pitcher himself. Varitek would cringe earlier in the year when media members or fans would lose patience with Lester because of his then-propensity for losing command.

"It was just a matter of learning," said Varitek. "Learning himself more than anything. Physically, he's made some adjustments and getting some experience pitching. I think that's been the big thing."

Drafted out of Bellarmine Prep High School (Puyallup, Wash.) by the Red Sox in 2002, Lester steadily climbed through the ranks. The only thing that could ever seem to deter him was the form of cancer called anaplastic large cell lymphoma, the chilling diagnosis Lester received in late August 2006.

Last year, he regained his strength. This year, Lester used that strength to become an elite pitcher.

"Not just the quantity but the quality that he's given us," Francona said. "He's stepped up and been a huge part of our staff. It's exciting. You'll take good pitching anywhere you can get it but when it's homegrown and you get to see him grow up right in front of your eyes, it certainly makes you proud as an organization."

Lester was asked recently what he took more pride in -- the 16 wins or 200 innings?

"I think 200 innings," Lester said. "For me, I associate that with guys like a Beckett, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens. Guys like that are pretty much the horses of the team."

And that's precisely what Lester has become, which is why he will take the ball to open the postseason for the Red Sox.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.