Lester's resurgence mirrors Sox's success

ALDS Game 1 starter Jon Lester is excited to be playing meaningful baseball in October again. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

BOSTON -- Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester said that in Octobers past, if his team had been eliminated, he would be happy to turn on a game and see how the others fared. Take in a little playoff baseball.

Not in 2012. After enduring a year that Lester described as "horrendous all the way around," he was all too eager to push baseball away.

"I went home ... and didn't watch a game, turned it off, tried to kind of get my brain back on track," Lester said Thursday from Fenway Park.

So that was the scene last October in the Lester household -- a man at a crossroads trying to forget the most painful season of his career. Fast-forward 12 months and the Lester clan is rolling, happy with the recent addition of a new baby boy and rallying around a resurgent leading man who will be the one everyone is watching in October when he takes the ball for Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Friday afternoon.

There is still a matter of performing and helping the Red Sox reach their ultimate goal, but the sheer confidence in Lester speaks to the one-year transformation.

His teammates saw no need to mince words.

"He's our ace," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

"He's our ace," said designated hitter David Ortiz.

"I'm glad that lefty is on our team," said left fielder Jonny Gomes.

Lester is no stranger to postseason baseball, having won the clincher in the 2007 World Series as a 23-year-old and making eight playoff appearances (six starts) overall. However, all of those came from 2007 to 2009, and the journey since then has been a wild one, for both Lester and the organization.

"To now be back to where we're at, not only be back but to have the season that we did, you know, was obviously very gratifying for all of us in that clubhouse," Lester said.

Lester was a stalwart on a feisty 2010 team that remained relevant despite suffering an outstanding rash of injuries. He did his part to lead the 2011 team to the best record in baseball in the middle of the season and then did his part to contribute to that team's collapse with a string of rocky performances in September. Lester continued to mirror his team's fortunes with a disappointing 2012 performance that has to look like a misprint on the back of a baseball card when grouped with the consistent, solid numbers he has put up through the rest of his career.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that his ups and downs have so often gone hand-in-hand with those of the club.

"He knows that this team goes kind of how he goes," Ortiz said.

So when Lester entered a swoon in May that carried into June, there was cause for concern among fans. He was on track for a season statistically worse than 2012, and perhaps the old Lester was no more.

Those closest to him saw otherwise.

"We knew [it was in there]," pitching coach Juan Nieves said. "It was a couple of games in key situations he gave up a couple of base hits here and there, but he had been pitching great since February."

It was a game against Toronto on June 27 when Lester seemed to turn a corner. He gave up four runs in seven innings, but the line did not reflect the way he looked. A few starts later, he limited the Rays to two runs while striking out eight in 6 1/3 innings. Aside from a tiny hiccup here and there, the 29-year-old has dominated ever since, going 5-2 with a 1.80 ERA during a nine-start stretch before an outing in Baltimore on Saturday that represented nothing more than a tuneup.

It was around that time that speculation began to build that Lester would be named the Game 1 starter. Although manager John Farrell did not make it official until Wednesday, most had already penciled Lester into the Friday afternoon start. On a staff loaded with quality arms, the debate while Farrell waited seemed unnecessary.

"He's done a great job of righting his own ship, so to speak, after a late May, early June stretch of starts where things didn't work out as well," Farrell said. "He finished this year extremely strong, powerful, with good performance, and we're looking at him to lead the way here in October."

Lester, whose name seems to climb up one Red Sox chart or another each time he goes out there, is aware of the magnitude of the assignment.

"To be named Game 1 starter, especially after last year to be named Opening Day starter, you know, big honor," he said. "Obviously, very excited, especially, I always say, for this organization with the history that goes along with it, the guys that have gotten that honor in the past. You know, it's a big honor for me to have my name up there with those guys. And like I would say, I can go out and bust my butt and give the team the best chance to win tomorrow and set the tone for the other starters."

Lester is 2-3 with a 2.57 ERA in his postseason career, which includes two other Game 1 starts, both on the road. He allowed three earned runs in 13 innings over those two outings. The bright lights will not be an issue for this tested veteran.

The two-time All-Star is noted for his serious demeanor. When things are not going well, that can take on a very different vibe, and the lefty has been known to exhibit frustration when not getting the results he desires. Those moments have been few and far between in 2013, and not only because of his improved performance. Simply put, the man who pitches with an almost unsettling intensity learned to have fun again.

"This team, it's a complete opposite of anything I've been around," Lester said. "From the moment you walk in, guys were laughing, cutting up. Nobody is safe in the clubhouse as far as getting yelled at. It doesn't matter if you're 16 years in or if you've got one day, everybody is having fun. And then when the time comes for 7 o'clock to roll around, you know, guys go out there and they do what they need to do and they're prepared and they play hard. And the guys that are on the bench are keeping those guys loose and having fun doing it.

"It's been a joy to be around. I never thought, just being around this market for a couple of years, I never thought you could actually do that here. And it's a pleasant surprise. And hopefully we can continue to carry it over for the remaining time that I'm here, the other guys are here, and really just have fun playing the game."

All that from a guy who wanted nothing to do with the game last October. Times have changed for Jon Lester, and he has a chance to be an altering force for the Red Sox organization in the coming weeks.