In this universe, the fact that Jon Lester is taking the mound for the Red Sox in Kansas City on Thursday represents something of a rarity. The left-hander has made just three prior starts at Kauffman Stadium, pitching well (3.38 ERA) but wearing a 1-2 record from his efforts.
But during the offseason, there was at least a moment where it became necessary to wonder if Kansas City would become his baseball home, amidst the rumors about whether he might be dealt to the Royals in exchange for Wil Myers. There was little substance to the conversations between the Sox and Kansas City, as ultimately it appeared the Royals were more eager to pursue James Shields of the Rays (the pitcher whom they landed for Myers), but the Sox discussed internally whether they would be better off pursuing that sort of deal, and Lester was left for a brief period to figure out whether such a trade might happen.
It didn't. The Sox believed the left-hander was in line for a bounce back this year, and that he was likely their best avenue to a winning team for 2013. The Royals, meanwhile, were able to work with the Rays to find a trade match.
And so now, with more than two-thirds of the season behind him, Lester will take the mound in Kansas City, his "what if" home of last offseason. But it is not Kansas City that occupies his thoughts. Instead, his up-and-down 2013 season has intensified his feeling of responsibility to the Red Sox and to Boston. After he opened the second half with a pair of dominating performances (2 runs, 16 strikeouts, 2 walks in 13 1/3 innings), his 11-hit, six-run yield in 4 1/3 innings against the Diamondbacks last Friday (an outing that did have the silver lining of six strikeouts and no walks) chewed at him through the weekend.
"When you're not succeeding, you feel like you're letting the whole city down. Like this whole homestand, we've lost one game and that's the one I started," Lester said on Sunday of a stay at Fenway in which the Sox were actually 4-2. "It's like, '[Expletive], I'm the link in the chain that's broken right now.' Need to fix it. You're sitting here figuring out ways to try to fix it. There's no magic answer, nothing to say, 'That's the reason.' It's really the same thing I say every fifth day: It's about executing pitches. If you don't execute, you can't get outs."
Lester suggested that the analysis of his usage of his cutter relative to his changeup obscures a more fundamental point. When his location is down (as it was in seven shutout innings in Baltimore the start prior to his Arizona outing), he can overpower lineups -- as he did against the Orioles, primarily on the strength of his fastball. When he misses up, he's vulnerable.
Of course, that reflects a change in the margin for error that the left-hander featured earlier in his career. He's not old, but at 29, his stuff is different than it was as a 25-year-old in 2009. Lester remains one of the hardest-throwing left-handed starters in the majors, with his average fastball velocity of 92.5 mph (as measured by Fangraphs.com) tied with that of Clayton Kershaw and Matt Moore for fourth best among southpaw starters in the majors, behind only Derek Holland (93.5 mph), Chris Sale (93.0 mph) and Gio Gonzalez (92.6 mph). Still, that represents a subtle decline from the 93.7 mph that he flashed four years ago.
There is a difference in stuff, Lester acknowledged, that has necessitated some alterations to his repertoire, but not so great a decline that he's had to redefine his mix completely.
"I understand that I don't have 96, 97, 98 anymore with a devastating cutter in my pocket anytime I want it. I get that," said Lester. "I keep preaching to myself the same things we've been preaching all year long: Get the ball down, mix it, mix the changeup, throw the curveball, use the cutter when we need to."
The cutter has become the flashpoint for Lester, given that it has gone from a pitch of surpassing dominance from 2008-11 (resulting in a .201 average, .265 OBP, .272 slugging mark and swings and misses 27 percent of the time it was swung at) to an offering that's been battered (.249/.305/.361 with a 20.7 percent swing-and-miss rate).
Yet Lester suggests that, while he is reconsidering his situational usage of the pitch at times depending on the game plan that he concocts with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, it's not a pitch he will abandon.
"I'm not going to try to ram a cutter in on everybody just for giggles. We throw that pitch because we feel like we can get an out with that pitch or a foul ball to get us back in the count," said Lester. "It's not a matter of being hard-headed and saying I'm going to be stubborn and try to beat you with this pitch. No. We feel like it's the right pitch in the right situation. Sometimes it works out. For the most part, right now it hasn't worked out with that pitch. That's where I think it gets magnified into me being hard-headed with it, because it's been the pitch that's beaten me a little bit in some games.
"But like I've said, Andy Pettitte has done it for 17 years. I'm sure there's times where he got his [tail] beat with it, but he kept throwing it. That's the only way I'm going to get better, is to continue to mix with it. I'm not going to go in like I used to and say, 'Here's my fastball down and in and here's my cutter down and in -- see what you can do with it.' I think I've grown up a little bit since then. We'll just keep making those adjustments, keep mixing, keep taking each individual team as they are, have a game plan and try to go out there and execute it."
The left-hander is making alterations. He's incorporating his changeup more at times, particularly with two strikes in some of his recent outings. And he recognizes that his margin for error has shrunk as compared to when he would reach back for 97 mph whenever he needed it.
But at this point, Lester -- armed with a 10-6 record while leading the team with 143 1/3 innings, but second to last among the starting five with a 4.52 ERA and last among the group of Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster with 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings -- does not feel that he needs to reconsider his core identity as a pitcher. Asked whether he's at a point where he needs to alter his self-image as a power pitcher with a change of mix, or whether his struggles since mid-May (he's 4-6 with a 5.81 ERA in his last 14 starts) are simply a reflection of issues with execution, Lester offered a broad perspective.
"I think it's both. I feel like my velocity now is more consistent than when I was younger," said Lester. "When I was younger, the first three innings would be [all out], as hard as I could throw the ball. Then the next three or four were like, hey, where'd it go? I'd have 91, 92, 92, 91, 91. …
"My stuff's there. It's not like I'm up there throwing 88 now and having to throw corners and pitch, really kind of nibble," he added. "I still feel like my stuff is there. I still feel like a power pitcher. Now, it's just getting back to locating. It's been there at times, it hasn't at others. Whether that's mechanical, whether that's a thought process, a little bit of confidence or whatever it is, that's what I've got to figure out and take into my starts."
Lester remains confident in what he can do. It was not that long ago, after all, that he proved tremendously consistent in his execution of his full three-pitch mix in April and the first half of May, dominating opponents en route to a 6-0 record and 2.72 ERA through his first nine starts.
Since then, however, Lester has been engaged in the Gatsby-like chase of an elusive past. He's rarely featured full possession of his mix, and so the undertaking has been different, more challenging. There have been days where he's been missing his change, others where he's lacked a precision with his cutter.
The result has been almost three months of frustration.
"It's easy to stand out on the mound when you're reeling off six, seven, eight, nine starts in a row where you're just, 'Here. Go ahead. Show up today,' " Lester said, punctuating the statement by putting his hat out, a gesture meant to connote effortless dominance. "That's easy.
"But it's like hitting. You get in those slumps and wonder, 'How am I even here?' It's just a matter of, I've always talked about looking forward to the next one. I can't look back. I take a day, review, see what it is, move on. That's the same mindset I had.
That start [last Friday against the Diamondbacks] is in the rearview mirror."
It is the mound in Kansas City that lies ahead -- the place where, in a hypothetical alternative, he could have made his home this year, but where Lester now will attempt to reassert himself for a home stretch that will ultimately define the value of his season to the club that maintained its belief and commitment in him for 2013.