Jon Lester's season a striking success

SEATTLE -- Jon Lester probably has a point when he says he still doesn't consider himself a strikeout pitcher. Yes, the Boston Red Sox left-hander has struck out 200 or more batters for the second straight season, but heck, Nolan Ryan did it five years in a row -- after he'd turned 40.

Just since 1990, Randy Johnson struck out 200 or more batters 13 times. Pedro Martinez did it nine times, Roger Clemens eight (he did it 12 times in all). Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, Johan Santana and Javier Vazquez (yes, that Javier Vazquez) did it five times apiece.

So while he is the only left-hander in Sox history to crack 200 K's even once, never mind twice, Lester did a good job of maintaining some perspective after he whiffed a dozen Seattle Mariners -- raising his season total to 208 -- in a 5-1 Red Sox win Monday night.

"Yeah, it's nice,'' he said. "It's something I'll look back on when I'm done playing. But it doesn't make or break my season.''

Lester's season, by most measures, has been a resounding success. Seventeen wins, a number exceeded by only one pitcher, CC Sabathia of the Yankees. The whiffs, which rank third in the league, behind Felix Hernandez of the Mariners and Jered Weaver of the Angels. An ERA of 3.17, eighth-best in the AL.

But it is both blessing and curse that even more is expected of Lester, at 26 still a great bet to emerge as the brightest star in a remarkable class of young left-handers, all under the age of 30. Sabathia and C.J. Wilson of the Rangers are the oldest in the group, at 29.

David Price of the Rays is 24. Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers is 22. Cole Hamels of the Phillies, like Lester, is 26, as is Francisco Liriano of the Twins. Ricky Romero of the Jays is 25. Gio Gonzalez of the Athletics is 24. Jaime Garcia of the Cardinals is 23. Brian Matusz of the Orioles is 23, and the rookie is the only one in this group with an ERA over 4.00. There are others: Jonathan Sanchez, John Danks, Clayton Richard.

You know how many lefty starters in 2000 had an ERA under 4.00, among qualifiers? Four, and only one, Mike Hampton, was considered star material.

Perhaps Lester will never rise to the absolute top of this group, but he has the size, makeup and stuff to do so. And the drive. After a recent start Lester made against the Rays, two major league scouts, both former pitchers, talked about how much pleasure it gave them to watch Lester at work. They raved about his cutter, which he throws to both right-handed and left-handed hitters, to both sides of the plate, and at different speeds. "One is what I would call a cutter,'' one scout said. "The other is what I'd call a cut fastball.''

Lester looked puzzled when that conversation was relayed to him. "I throw it the same way,'' he said. "It just can do different things.''

Monday night, the cutter wasn't even the most effective pitch in Lester's arsenal. The curveball was. Seven of his 12 strikeouts came on the curve, six of them swinging.

"The curveball has been a pretty good pitch for me my last couple of starts,'' Lester said. "It's a big 'feel' pitch, and I sort of lost it for awhile.''

The other big part of Lester's game Monday night was his ability to get ahead in the count. He threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 30 batters he faced, including 9-of-11 to left-handed hitters. Chone Figgins, a switch-hitter batting from the right side, had two of Seattle's three singles off Lester. Right-handed-hitting Jose Lopez had the other.

Lester's dozen strikeouts were one short of his season high, which also came here on July 24. He had a perfect game going that night for 5 1/3 innings, then center fielder Eric Patterson dropped a fly ball, the next batter hit a home run, and Lester lost despite his 13 whiffs.

This is home for Lester, but beyond sleeping in his own bed, that doesn't mean it has been comfortable. "Weird things happen here,'' he said.

This is where he learned he had cancer four years ago, a night that goes well beyond weird. This is where, on Monday night, pitching coach John Farrell was absent; he was back in the team's hotel, having passed a kidney stone.

"It's never normal here,'' he said. "Something always comes up.''

But in one important way, this has become the norm for the Red Sox: Jon Lester, doing something special. And there's more to come.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.