FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It had been assumed, and now it’s official: Jon Lester will be the Opening Day starter when the Red Sox face the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on Monday.
“The way he was lined up, he was probably targeted all along,” manager John Farrell said Wednesday, “but at the same time, we didn’t want that to be a focal point. His work that was needed and the adjustments he has continued to reinforce and repeat on the mound were the priorities, and we felt like it was important to focus on the needs of spring training for every pitcher, including Jon.”
Farrell said Lester has reverted back to the delivery that made him a dominant pitcher for four years before his ERA blew up to 4.82 last season, when he gave up 216 hits in 205 1/3 innings and had his lowest strikeout total since 2008.
This spring, Lester is tied with Seattle’s Brandon Maurer for the lowest ERA (0.90), has given up just six hits in 20 innings, and has a MLB-leading WHIP of 0.50.
“He’s executed pitches with a consistency we’ve seen before, which made him one of the top left-handers in the game,” Farrell said. “He’s had a very strong spring training.”
In the past, it was regarded as “Josh Beckett’s rotation” -- a nod to his experience and accomplishments. With Beckett now in Los Angeles, is this now “Lester’s rotation”?
Not necessarily, Farrell said.
“A lot is made of an Opening Day assignment,” he said. “For everybody on a major-league roster, that’s a special day in and of itself. Once we get past that, it’s maybe a cliché, but the guy who walks to the mound is our No. 1 starter. We don’t want to lose the importance of the five guys in the rotation, and yet Jon has been in the discussion of a very select group of pitchers in the major leagues, and he’s pitching like that again.
“We have a pretty varied group in the rotation. I think each shows their leadership by their work routine and how they go out and compete, and the priority they place on the role that they have. I can’t say it’s because Jon is starting on Monday that he becomes a different person in the clubhouse. I think that would be pretty unrealistic. But he’s five or six years into his big-league career and he’s more than capable of that responsibility of being an Opening Day starter.”
The Red Sox have the lowest ERA (3.95) and WHIP (1.27) of any team in spring training -- which Farrell attributes to health, the pitchers’ willingness to embrace some of the suggestions the new staff has offered, and the input of pitching coach Juan Nieves.
“I think that’s shown up in some positive results that reinforce that -- whether that’s working a little bit quicker or whether that’s some of the individual adjustments guys are taking to the mound and repeating,” he said. “Our rotation is going to give us an element of consistency, and that comes every single night. You can’t stress that importance enough. That has to become a cornerstone of this team because it will take us a long way in how deep we go in this season in contention.
“Juan has done an excellent job. Juan’s a very good pitching coach. He’s got lot of experience first-hand as an elite pitcher in his own right, yet his career was cut short because of injury. He’s a great communicator. He’s genuine. Pitchers know that he cares about them and is there at any time of day for them. Because of that genuineness, that trust is being built by the day.”
Other takeaways from Farrell’s media session:
* He said the organization is still “working through” a decision on whether Jackie Bradley Jr. will open the season in the big leagues.
“We’d probably like to have some sense of who our 25 guys are going to be by the end of day tomorrow,” Farrell said. “We just want to be fair to all that are going north that they have a couple of days to prepare themselves.”
* Jacoby Ellsbury, who sprained his ankle Sunday, will be kept out of today’s game as a precautionary measure. Farrell said Ellsbury is expected to be back in the lineup Thursday, along with Shane Victorino (right wrist).
* David Ortiz hit Wednesday morning and Farrell said he is “making solid process in terms of increasing his activity. There will be agility work on the field as well. He’s feeling pretty good right now. He’s done some straight-ahead running, so part of that agility program will be change of direction. He’s feeling like he can progress from hitting in the cage to hitting off the machine to getting on the field today with the normal group.”
* Farrell said that he has not ruled out a minor-league game for shortstop Stephen Drew, still recovering from a concussion.
“Based on how he felt this past Sunday, that seemed to be in line, but yet there were recurring minor symptoms and we have to let that clear up,” Farrell said. “He feels improved today. What’s been happening is he’ll have those feelings at night after a full day of activity, and sometimes it extends into the following day. When that occurs, it’s obvious things are not back to complete 100 percent. It does vary at times.”
* Catcher Ryan Lavarnway was optioned to Triple-A, and pitchers Anthony Carter and Jose De La Torre were reassigned to minor-league camp.
Farrell on Lavarnway: “Right now, he needs everyday at-bats. He has come back in at a weight that is more consistent with his in the past, and overall strength. I thought he did a very good job with the catching side of the game. His transfer and footwork are much improved. He threw out (Minnesota’s) Ben Revere the other day on a release time from the pitcher that was average, yet we had him 1.9 (seconds) at the plate, which is more than acceptable at the big-league level. The emphasis this spring training was on the defensive side, yet we’ve known him to be an offensive player. When those two parts of his game are aligned, he’s a major-league player.”