One year ago, Jon Lester was merely hoping to be a part of the postseason roster. At the conclusion of the season, he had no idea whether he would enjoy that honor.
That being the case, the news he received just prior to the start of the 2007 Division Series between the Red Sox and Angels represented a bit of a mixed bag. He would be on the team, but his role was that of the long reliever. In many ways, Lester’s postseason role was that of pitcher of last resort.
“You’re young and just want to be part of it any way you can,” he said. “(But) it kind of stunk because the position I was in was long relief. It’s one of those deals where you want to pitch, but you don’t because if you pitch, something not good is happening. It’s not a good deal—stuck between a rock and a hard spot.”
All the same, Lester benefited from a couple of relief appearances against the Indians in the ALCS. That acclimated him to the postseason atmosphere and allowed him to be sharp when he took the mound for Game 4 of the World Series.
And it was in that game—a 5 2/3 inning effort in which Lester absolutely dominated the Rockies—that Lester demonstrated for the first time an ability to thrive on baseball’s biggest stage. Now, he is eager to add to that resume.
Lester has gone from being perhaps the most unimportant pitcher on Boston’s playoff pitching staff last year to its most crucial this year. As a result of the injury to teammate Josh Beckett, he will take the ball in Game 1 of the Division Series, inheriting a role occupied in prior postseasons by Beckett and Curt Schilling.
Though it was the injury to Beckett that dictated the development, the Sox have no misgivings about the prospect of seeing the 24-year-old on the mound.
“We love what Beckett can do,” said manager Terry Francona. “We’re starting to get that feeling about Lester.”
That sentiment, in turn, is as rewarding to Lester as the actual opportunity to pitch in Wednesday’s Division Series opener. A pitcher who was searching for his way in 2006 and 2007—a task made immeasurably more difficult by the emergence of cancer and subsequent recovery from it—has now arrived.
“The Schillings and Becketts—they get that respect as big-game pitchers. That’s something that you always want to be known as,” said Lester. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted.
“I don’t want the attention and I don’t want the notoriety, but I want to be in this clubhouse, known as a guy who will go out there and compete and give guys quality starts. When you pitch, you want guys behind you to say, ‘Who’s pitching today? He’s going to pitch his butt off. Let’s play our butt off for him.’”
LEARNING FROM ADVERSITY
That Lester has arrived at that point represents one of the most remarkable stories of the 2008 season. He went 16-6, finishing among American League leaders in wins (7th), ERA (3.21, 4th) and innings (210.1, 7th). Yesterday, Lester was named A.L. pitcher of the month for September, repeating an honor that he had also received in July.
It is an understatement to describe the difference between 2007 and 2008 as mere progress. It has been closer to a revelation. The components of Lester’s transformation have been far-reaching.
A year ago, Lester was at times incredibly limited about where he could locate his pitches. There were games when he felt little choice but to play to the strengths of opposing hitters.
He did not have a sinking two-seam fastball with which he could work at the bottom of the strike zone. He did not have the velocity to make opponents swing through pitches that were up out of the zone. He could not command the ball to the arm side of the plate, meaning that he was constantly forced to work middle-in to right-handers.
“Last year was definitely tough at times,” Lester said. “I was so conscious of throwing strikes that I wasn’t worried about down. I was throwing at the thighs…I didn’t have the fastball away, so it was fastball in and curveball. I’d just have to go off of luck and hope that they hit it at someone.”
There were lessons that Lester drew from last year’s physical and mechanical struggles. Over the course of the year, he was forced to make the needed adjustments to succeed with a diminished arsenal.
It took a while for him to do so with any consistency, but by last September, Lester had grown both stronger both physically and in his plan of attack. He started locating his pitches with a purpose in order to compensate for the absence of pure stuff.
“It just makes you realize that you don’t have to have 95, 96, 98 to get guys out at this level,” he said. “It’s a matter of pitchability, location, execution, keeping the ball down. Once you learn how to keep the ball down, your stuff plays so much better.”
The combination of that lesson and Lester’s significant physical development has been at the heart of his emergence this year.
A ROBUST PRESENCE
Physically, of course, he is a different pitcher this year than he was in 2007. When Lester showed up in spring training last year, he weighed roughly 212 pounds. There were times when it was difficult for him to maintain that weight.
This year, he checked into Fort Myers with a weight around 220 pounds. Over the course of the year, he has continued to add muscle, to the point where he is now pushing 230. At 24, he is filling out the frame that looked so projectable when he was one of the best pitching prospects in the minors.
The result is apparent both in his innings load and on the radar gun. Lester, who started the season working at 92-94 mph, has seen his velocity improve as the season has progressed.
Teammate Paul Byrd, who came to the Sox from Cleveland in mid-August, noted that Lester’s fastball has become discernibly more powerful even in his seven weeks as a Red Sox. His heater is now exploding across the plate at 95-96 m.p.h.
With the improved readings has come a greater ability to elevate his fastball and blow it by opposing hitters, who are now constantly put on the defensive by the young pitcher.
“Obviously, the extra velocity helps,” Lester said. “But you’re still trying to work at the bottom of the zone. You elevate for a purpose. If you miss, you miss. But you don’t want to pitch at the belt.”
While Lester is attacking different parts of the strike zone, he is also using a broadened pitch mix. In 2007, he typically featured a three-pitch mix: a four-seam fastball that usually was in the high-80s and low-90s, a cut fastball and a curve.
If one of those options was unavailable on a given night, Lester felt little optimism.
“Last year and the year before, it was, ‘I don’t have my cutter—now what do I do? There’s nothing else,’” he said. “(This year), there’s no panic. It’s, ‘Okay, I don’t have my cutter tonight, but I have my four-seamer, I have my two-seam away and I have my curveball. We’re going to work on that, and maybe I can mix in a couple changeups.’”
His feel for his pitches has improved immensely since even the start of the year. In April, Lester recalled, he would need to have bullpen sessions that lasted 80 and even 90 pitches. As the season progressed, he could get through a side session with anywhere from 25-35 pitches, thereby helping him to preserve the bullets to assume the role of staff workhorse.
UNSATISFIED WITH THE BREAKOUT
Still, as far as Lester has come, he is not satisfied. To the contrary, he is convinced that there is room for an even more devastating mix of pitches.
In 2005, he featured a changeup that helped him to get early-count groundouts. The fact that he has not yet seen that pitch return with any consistency remains the source of some disappointment.
“I think that’s been the most frustrating thing this year—knowing that in the past I’ve thrown a good one, and now not knowing where it’s at. I can’t figure that out. That’s probably the biggest bump in the road this year,” he said. “My last couple starts, I’ve made some big improvements on it. I have a lot of confidence built off of it in the last couple starts.”
That desire to improve has left Lester with little desire to reflect on his progress. He is far less interested in discussing his accomplishments than in adding to them, starting when the curtain rises on the 2008 playoffs.
“There’s no time (to reflect on success). There’s really no reason,” he said. “Hopefully it’s something I can build off of and have plenty more.”
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.