ST. LOUIS -- It has now been a bit more than 11 years since Jon Lester became the first player drafted under the current Red Sox ownership group in 2002. Then, the 18-year-old was a young high school pitcher with shoot-the-moon potential whom the team's amateur scouts hoped might one day anchor a championship-caliber rotation.
Yet it was not only team officials who had monumental ambitions for the left-hander. He harbored them for himself as well, maintaining them through the minors, into his major league debut and even after 2007, when he stood on the mound as the winning pitcher in the Sox' World Series-clinching Game 4 victory over the Rockies.
Then, he was an inspiring story who had succeeded in the absence of expectations, a player whose performance was understood mostly on the merits of its narrative power, rather than in more direct baseball terms.
But Lester had a different notion. He wanted more.
"He came up to the big leagues at a time where we were going to the playoffs and winning World Series. And as a young player he's always looking around and trying to improve himself and get better," said teammate David Ortiz. "When we won in 2007 you guys saw him perform that year. As a player, he told me straight up that he was going to be the future of the organization, the ace, and there he is."
Indeed. This October has represented the ongoing fulfillment of that prophecy. More than a decade later, Lester has emerged as the bedrock of his team's run through October, offering a foundation of dominance in a way that commands appreciation for an elite talent who is enjoying historic success in the most crucial games of any season.
On Monday night in St. Louis, Game 5 of the World Series -- which featured Lester against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright -- presented the Sox with a stark contrast. Win and the Sox would return home feeling emboldened by the possibility of needing just one win for a title. Lose and the team faced a more perilous circumstance, one loss from elimination.
Lester, in his team's 3-1 victory over the Cardinals, rendered the latter scenario virtually unimaginable, as he has for most of a dazzling postseason run. Aside from a brief whiff of vulnerability in the fourth inning, when he gave up a game-tying solo homer to Matt Holliday and nearly got taken deep by Carlos Beltran, Lester was overpowering in a fashion befitting one of the most successful October pitchers ever. He allowed just the one run on four hits over 7 2/3 innings, punching out seven and walking none.
"Jon Lester quietly went out there and I would say he threw the game of his life, but how many times can you throw the game of your life?" wondered teammate Craig Breslow. "Lester really picked us up right around the All-Star break and has been a bona fide ace. Very much has been made of the starters that we've faced, but Lester deserves to be mentioned ahead of any of the guys you talk about. What he's done, especially what he's done in games that we've really relied on him to come in and set the tone for the next day, when the bullpen is a little beat up, he goes out there and gets us into the eighth in a 2-2 series going out and getting a huge win for us. Everything we've asked of him, he's given us."
Though the homer by Holliday snapped a streak of 16 2/3 consecutive shutout innings in the World Series -- the second-longest run ever to start a pitcher's World Series career, the 29-year-old nonetheless overpowered the Cards with a 92-94 mph fastball, a killer cutter and a hard curve. He worked from 74-94 mph, surgically carving both sides of the plate as well as the top and bottom of the strike zone. For most of the night, the Cardinals had no shot.
The pattern and results are familiar. The outing was the third of the postseason in which the left-hander worked 7 2/3 innings, thus making him the fifth Red Sox player ever to pitch into the eighth inning on three separate occasions in a single postseason, joining Bill Dineen and Cy Young in 1903, Luis Tiant in 1975 and Bruce Hurst in 1986. Lester's one-run yield dropped his postseason ERA to 1.97 in his 11 playoff starts, the third-best mark in history by a pitcher with 10 or more turns of the rotation in the playoffs, behind only Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Waite Hoyt.
It has been a stretch in which the Red Sox have been comfortable with the notion of Lester going toe to toe with any other pitcher on the planet. He has ignored circumstance -- whether low scoring by his team or a succession of top opposing pitchers (Matt Moore, Anibal Sanchez twice, Wainwright twice) and set about the business of giving his team a chance to win.
"We had the top scoring offense in baseball this year. But our starting pitching, led by Jon Lester, has carried us to this point. He's come up big every time he's gone to the mound this postseason," Sox principal owner John Henry said. "Jon has anchored this staff all year long. He's faced the best starting pitching I've ever seen and outpitched them."
It's been less of a revelation than a reminder.
Between 2012 and the struggles that Lester encountered for part of the first half, doubts had crept in about whether his best, most dominant days as a pitcher were behind him. There were subtle signs of an erosion in velocity and power, and with them, questions about his stature as one of the game's best starters.
Yet with the benefit of hindsight offered by both the final 11 weeks of the regular season and now a brilliant postseason, that period may have represented a transitional metamorphosis. Lester now represents a pitcher with power swing-and-miss stuff, yet an increased ability to manipulate that arsenal in a fashion that suggests his results have become less dependent on the radar gun.
He has arrived at a new stage of his career, yet the indications since late July point to a moment in time that could be a springboard to sustainable excellence -- perhaps even surpassing what he's done in his career to date. The image of Lester outpitching another top October performer like Cardinals ace Wainwright -- twice -- further underscored what he's become.
"He's matured into a pitcher on the mound, and matured into a man off the mound. He's taking full responsibility as a leader of this rotation," said Sox GM Ben Cherington, who has seen Lester's entire career unfold. "On the mound, he's evolved into a pitcher. He's changing speeds on both sides of the plate, he's using his whole arsenal. He's not 25 anymore, so he can't just reach back and have 97 whenever he wants it, but when he did that, he could probably be a little one-dimensional and still have success. But we're seeing him turn into a pitcher, like the good ones do at this age. He's kind of reached that second gear in a career. That's what it's looks like is happening.
"Like a lot of pitchers go through at some point, adjustments have to be made. There are things you can do at 24, 25 that are different than when you're 30. To stay good, you have to adjust. You see that happening. You see those adjustments being made. He threw a curveball in to Holliday tonight -- he would have thrown a cutter in before, not a curveball in. The whole arsenal has opened up. He uses both sides, he can go up and down. He and [catcher David] Ross are obviously in a good sync right now, and he looks like a pitcher."
As such, Lester now looks like a compellingly rare commodity. On the biggest of stages, he has shown the capacity to wear the title of an ace, a player with the durability and power to pitch not just to but through October. He is a 200-innings-a-year machine who is capable of delivering his best performances when they matter the most, bringing both the physical strength and the focus to excel.
Indeed, whereas there were points where it appeared the Sox could start contemplating a future without Lester (who will be eligible for free agency after 2014, once the team rubber stamps his no-brainer $13 million player option for next year), that now seems far more difficult to fathom. The Sox recognize that Lester is in line for a monster payday; they also recognize that they do not have someone in their organization who can match his reliability and accomplishments. Nor, for that matter, could they feel quite as comfortable in making a whopping investment for several years in an available talent from outside the organization.
"We look at our own players differently than we do free agents," noted Henry.
And what the Sox see in Lester is someone who is among the game's best right now and who has the ability to continue to sustain his performance going forward. He has made one critical adaptation already, suggesting that there can be more going forward.
"He's one of the lefties in the big leagues that he's able to manipulate the baseball really well," noted Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves. "It's funny. Sometimes after a light bullpen, I tell him, you know something, you don't have to use your body anymore. Sometimes guys that big or that strong, they want to throw hard over their bodies instead of manipulating the baseball with their hands.
"The more he does that, light bullpens and touch and feels, he realizes, 'I don't have to throw the ball harder. I can manipulate the baseball no matter what.' He's able, the capability of Jon is he's able to slow the game down. he's able to speed hitters up. He changes speeds, 77 to 94. That's what, to me, makes a great pitcher.
"I think he's thrown about 235, 240 innings," added Nieves. "But you know what? He can handle it. If anyone in this league can handle it, it's him."
With his five postseason outings, during which he has a 1.56 ERA, Lester now has worked 244 innings. Yet on the mound, until leaving the game with a deliberate walk that admitted to some lower back discomfort that was amplified by the rock-hard Busch Stadium mound, he did not betray the magnitude of his workload.
"He's our backbone. He's our horse when he's out there. We expect a lot out of him. He's pitching like the ace he is," said catcher David Ross. "If I could say one good thing about him, he doesn't take any pitches off. He puts the same emphasis on the first pitch he throws as the last pitch he throws, and that's what makes a really good pitcher."
There has been an evident determination on the left-hander's part throughout this month. At this point, of course, he feels the cumulative wear of a season, but he has no interest in making concessions to it.
"We've got three months to recover," said Lester. "The time is now. We've got to win now."
That is the tone of a pitcher who has brought his team to the brink of a championship, fulfilling the expectations not only of those who once saw him but also those he laid for himself.