FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Takeaways from the Fort, where manager John Farrell still resists publicly anointing Jon Lester his Opening Day pitcher, a mere formality as the Sox left-hander threw six perfect innings Sunday afternoon in a 5-1 win against the Tampa Bay Rays.
It was exactly two years ago, on another St. Paddy’s Day, when then-manager Terry Francona announced that Lester would be making his first-ever Opening Day start, then revealing that he’d actually informed the pitcher via text message months previously.
"It was short and sweet," Lester said. "I think I was in a deer stand."
Lester insisted Sunday that he hasn’t been told a thing, either while wearing camouflage or not, but the Sox have not deviated from the five-day rotation that was set early in camp. Lester is scheduled to have two more tuneups before he is on track to take the ball April 1 in Yankee Stadium against the New York Yankees and their ace left-hander, CC Sabathia.
Not making the assignment official is just Farrell’s way of recognizing that an injury late in camp could alter plans, and it also serves as a minor amusement, having reporters continue to pose a question that has an obvious answer.
Far more important to the Red Sox is the fact that Lester, who has an 0.90 ERA in 20 spring innings spaced over five starts, is pitching like a man that you’d be delighted to give the ball to in the opener.
Lester, who pitched from the windup the entire afternoon, which is what a pitcher does when he permits no baserunners, struck out six and had just four three-ball counts. He threw 79 pitches, 53 for strikes, and threw first-pitch strikes to 11 of the 18 batters he faced.
The Rays hit just four balls to the outfield in Lester’s six innings, and middle infielders Dustin Pedroia and Jose Iglesias both made outstanding plays behind him, second baseman Pedroia roaming far afield to catch Yunel Escobar’s popup down the right-field line to open the fourth and shortstop Iglesias taking a hit away from Evan Longoria when he speared his liner in the hole.
Lester helped himself with a nice play on James Loney’s comebacker in the second and Iglesias ranged to his left to grab a ground ball by Jose Lobaton that had a chance to make it up the middle.
“We all say, as starting pitchers, we don’t realize it,’’ Lester said regarding his awareness of being perfect, “but you know when a guy gets a hit off you or you give up a walk. Having a mini-Fenway out here and having that scoreboard right in your face, it’s hard to miss it.’’
No one gets excited about a perfect game in spring training. When the late Rod Beck finished off a six-pitcher spring perfecto started by Pedro Martinez 13 years ago in City of Palms Park, he said afterward he had no idea why he got a standing ovation until catcher Joe Siddall told him.
Lester’s takeaway from the results he’s gotten so far this spring is that they serve as validation for the things he has been working on. It’s much easier to believe in the revisions you are making when the results suggest you’re on the right track.
“You’re working on things, adjusting, making changes,’’ Lester said. “If you’re out there getting your butt beaten in, you don’t believe in them, you don’t buy into them. Last year in the month of July, I was working on the same things I’m working on now but weren’t getting the results.
“You throw the results out the window and keep working. My August and September were better. When you work on things, see the results, see the late swing on a fastball in, see the take on a breaking ball, yeah, you’re able to walk away and say this stuff is really working and this is me.’’
The “me” to which Lester aspires is the pitcher who from Opening Day 2008, to Sept. 6, 2011, had a 65-29 record and a .691 winning percentage, exceeded among all major-league pitchers (minimum 600 innings) only by the .704 winning percentage posted by Sabathia (76-32). Over that same span, Lester was sixth in strikeouts per nine innings (8.72) and 11th in ERA (3.21).
The “me” Lester is seeking to expose as an impostor is the pitcher who in 37 starts spanning his last four starts of the 2011 season, plus the 2012 season, had a .346 winning percentage (9-17), the lowest of any major-league pitcher with 200 or more innings, and whose 5.12 ERA was the third worst. His strikeout rate dropped to 7.24 per nine innings in that span.
Reunited with former pitching coach Farrell and introduced to a new pitching coach, Juan Nieves, the early returns suggest that the good Lester is obliterating the bad.
“He pitched with a lot of confidence,’’ Farrell said. “He didn’t overthrow. At the same time, we’re seeing an increase of power from start to start. He was very sharp obviously.
“A little better velocity. You kind of expect that as you get deeper in camp, [better] overall arm strength. Today he threw four pitches for strikes, he was able to use his cutter on both sides of the plate. Very impressive outing.’’
Just as Clay Buchholz did last week, Lester acknowledged he is trying to work at a crisper pace, spending less time second-guessing his pitch selection and climbing back on the rubber and heeding, for the most part, the suggestions from his catcher, which on Sunday was David Ross. Lester said he, Buchholz and Ryan Dempster also took the approach from early in camp to attack hitters aggressively with their fastballs.
“Attacking hitters, being relentless in the zone, they’ve seen that from us as a unit,’’ Lester said. “We’ve gone right after guys, and taken some guys aback by that. Opposing hitters are, ‘Wow, these guys really are coming after us.’ We want to take that into the season, take that some mindset and get after it.’’
Lester will pitch in a minor-league game here Friday, rather than facing division rival Baltimore in Sarasota, and try to increase his pitch count to around 95. After that, he’ll throttle down in his final tuneup before the Sox go to New York, and …
“I’m pitching Opening Day?’’ he said. “I haven’t been told anything.’’
* Outfielder Jonny Gomes had a big day with a double and two singles and four RBIs, all coming against right-handed pitching. “I know he wants more opportunities against right-handers,’’ Farrell said. “If he keeps driving in four runs on three at-bats, he’ll keep getting those opportunities.’’
* Third baseman Will Middlebrooks had two doubles and scored two runs. “Since the first week, we’ve seen more confidence in his swing, getting past the fracture of a year ago,’’ Farrell said. “He’s in a pretty good place right now.’’
* With Anthony Carter and Joel Hanrahan retiring all six batters they faced collectively, the Sox took a perfect game into the ninth. It ended when Jason Bourgeois beat out an infield hit to second with one out in the ninth. The hit came off minor-leaguer Marco Duarte, who pitched for Double-A Portland last season, his first in the Sox system after coming from the Astros.