That kind of pitcher -- the one you saw Tuesday night in a Rays uniform in the form of David Price -- was supposed to be Jon Lester this season.
It will have to wait.
As Lester explained, 2012 has been "like a nightmare you haven't woken up from." The Red Sox' Opening Day starter heads into his second-to-last outing of the season Wednesday night carrying a 9-13 record and 4.96 ERA, not the kind of next step he had been banking on. But with the reality of '12 officially unescapable, the priority for Lester has become to figure out how to make it right again. How to re-enter the "Who is the best lefty the American League" debate that Price entrenched himself in further with a 13-strikeout, complete-game victory against the Red Sox in the teams' series opener.
Such a return is of the utmost importance -- to the pitcher and the team he plays for.
"I feel like I'm there. I just have a start here or a start there where it still feels foreign to me," he said. "It's just a matter of sticking with that same mindset.
"You keep going out there pitching and you think it's going to be a new day and a new dream, and you get out there and it's the same nightmare. You get out there in nut-crunching time and you have to bear down and not give up a run, but the same kind of hit happens. It seems to be the same thing over and over again.
"This offseason I want to get away. Forget about baseball, forget about process, forget about all the things we've worked on, forget about lineups and all the distractions and get away, hit that reset button so when you start throwing again in January it's almost like it's all foreign again. Now you get to where you're just throwing the baseball. You're not worrying about if your foot is in the right spot, if you're landing in the same place, is my elbow up. You're just worried about playing catch and getting your arm strength again. The offseason for a lot of people hopefully is going to do good."
There is a reason, despite the struggles of '12, Lester still is mentioned as a potential Price. He entered the season having been one of an elite group of pitchers to have won at least 15 games in four straight seasons, coming off a campaign of going 15-9 with a 3.47 ERA. During that four-year run, Lester totaled the third-most wins of any lefty (65), while managing a combined ERA of 3.33.
But this year has been different, the likes of which Lester has never experienced.
"As far as taking the next step and evolving as a pitcher, I consider myself a pretty damn good pitcher," he said. "People say I'm not an ace, and people say I'm not an elite pitcher, but I pretty much consider that to be an elite pitcher. Everybody has down years. Roy Halladay got sent to the minor leagues. Cliff Lee got sent to the minor leagues. Everybody goes through struggles. Everybody goes through ups and downs. It's just how you come out of it.
"I've had my fair share of days where you feel sorry for yourself, or you're kind of pissed off and am down in the dumps. But for the most part I think I've done a pretty good job of staying consistent through this whole year with my attitude. Just try and be the same guy every day and work as hard as I can to pitch every five days."
It's not difficult to decipher when Lester's resolve was put to the most extreme test. That would have been after his July 22 start in which the lefty allowed 11 runs over four innings against Toronto.
It was not only the worst start of Lester's career, but (other than his battle with cancer) might have served as the 28-year-old's professional low point. Solutions had been sought out. Changes had been made. But results still were not forthcoming.
"We spent all All-Star break re-evaluating where I was at and what I needed to do going forward and how I needed to change back to me," he said. "I bought in and was sold on what we needed to do, worked on those changes and the four starts after the All-Star break the most I go is 4 1/3 [innings]. I think I gave up at least six runs in each start. That was tough. I'm not used to that. I'm not used to losing. I'm not used to getting my ass kicked. That's tough when you're used to one thing for so long and all of a sudden you don't have those things next to your name anymore to reassure the work that you've put in.
"After that Toronto start I just thought, 'You know what, I can't worry about my ERA. I can't worry about my wins and losses. All I can worry about is going out there and throwing as many innings as I can and try and keep my team in the game.' I think it's helped. I've thrown the ball better since. I think I'm more myself after that start."
Since that outing against the Blue Jays, Lester has been a different pitcher than the one he presented for the chunk of the season leading up to the start. Not dynamic. Not Price-ian. But better.
In his last 11 starts, Lester has gone at least six innings in all but one of them, totaling a 4.14 ERA and .241 batting average against. Before the stretch, he had struggled with a 5.46 ERA and .290 batting average against in 20 starts. But perhaps the most important turnaround is simply involving himself in more Red Sox wins, with the team record going from 7-13 to 6-5. Modest improvements, but steps in the right direction, nonetheless.
The change hasn't been lost on the lefty.
"It's been tough, physically, mentally. It's been a long year," Lester said. "It's been a long year of questioning where I was mechanically and the way I'm pitching and being able to turn that corner after the All-Star break and not getting the results. We made some adjustments, figured some things out and still not getting the results but sticking with the adjustments, that's been the tough part, just sticking to those things I know are right and know are going to help me in the future but not just not giving me the complete results I need. I just have to keep sticking it out.
"It's all result-oriented, so as far as not getting the results, yes. Physically, it's been fine. I haven't had the bumps and bruises I've normally had during seasons. I've been relatively healthy, and that's been a good thing for me. Just building off of that, taking the ball every five days, that was what I tried to do. Just trying to keep the team in the game. I think I've done that for the most part. I've had my fair share of not good ones, but I felt I've kept it within reach a lot throughout the season.
"I think this can only help me. It's not going to make me a worse pitcher. I have to learn from this year, and I've learned a lot as far as myself. The biggest adjustments were made after the All-Star break and I have to keep buying in to that."
They are steps forward that can't stop, for the sake of Lester or the Red Sox.
In the flurry of turning the roster inside-out, the starter has been identified as a piece of the foundation to build around. He is under team control for two more seasons, and with the difficulties that come with securing top-of-the-rotation talent, Lester remains one of those who figure to have an enormous say in the Sox sinking or swimming going forward.
Flash back to after his Sept. 6 start last season and you will find the pitcher the Red Sox will be looking for, one who was 15-6 with a 2.93 ERA in his first 27 '11 starts. (Oh, and the Red Sox were 29 games over .500.) That's what Lester, and the Red Sox, are trying to uncover once again.
It's a simple equation that hasn't always been easily deciphered: Less controversy plus better pitching leading to more wins.
"That's nice to hear, especially with a lot of stuff that has been said around here," Lester said of the suggestion he is one of the Red Sox' building blocks. "It's been a trying year. I have to deal with being considered a bad peer to my first base coach [Alex Ochoa] because we were kidding around in the dugout throwing seeds on each other. It's frustrating because people take a clip and that's how you're perceived. To hear something like [the inclusion of Lester as part of the solution], it's nice. That's what I would like to be perceived as. This is our group and this is who we're moving forward with. We're going to have some moving parts, but to know these are the guys you're going to ride into battle with and nine times out of 10 you're going to come out of top is nice.
"We have to get back to that mindset how we were in 2011. We didn't lose because of all that other stuff. We lost because we got beat. We were the best team for four months and we had our bad month in September. The pitching let us down. I'll be the first one to tell you I didn't pitch well in September, but that doesn't mean we weren't prepared. Every day I showed up, did what I had to do and every five days I was prepared and ready to go, but we got beat. This year was a lot of the same. But we're not far off. We cleared some room, and hopefully they'll use that to bring in some guys who can contribute, but the biggest thing is changing that attitude of, 'Hey, we're the Red Sox and when we come into town we're looking to sweep, and if we don't sweep you we're looking to take two out of three and then we're going to the next town and look to the exact same thing.' That's the way it used to be when I was here in '06, '07, '08, '09, '10 and '11. This year has obviously been different."