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Lester shines in minor league outing

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Jon Lester passed a major test Thursday.
The Red Sox pitcher has a much bigger one ahead later this month.

Lester made his first start of the year Thursday night for the
Class-A Greenville Drive as he attempts to return to Boston's
rotation after an offseason of cancer treatments and uncertainty.
He shut out the New York Yankees' affiliate, the Charleston
RiverDogs, on two hits over four innings before coming out.

When Lester left the game, he thought he had allowed only one hit, but afterward the official scorer ruled that Mitch Hilligoss' hard shot at Greenville third baseman Manny Arambarris was a hit. The scorer originally said Hilligoss reached base on an error.

The 23-year-old pitcher is due for the next of his three-month
checkups later in April to see if he's still cancer free. He had
put all his concentration into his comeback during spring training.
But the looming test has been on his mind recently.

"I don't think it'll affect anything," Lester said after his
outing. "But obviously, I'm human. It's just a matter of going
through the checkup and God-willing, everything will turn up clear
again and move on to the next checkup."

Lester was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma late
last season.

He had established himself as a rookie a year ago, going 7-2
with a 4.76 ERA. However, in August, doctors found his cancer,
which had attacked his body's lymph system.

Lester underwent six chemotherapy treatments between the
discovery and Dec. 21, then reported to Boston's training camp in
early February -- about two weeks ahead of the due date -- to work
his way back.

Previous tests have shown him without cancer. Still, the Red Sox
didn't want to rush Lester back. He didn't pitch in a major league
exhibition game, only facing minor league competition.

Last week, Lester was sent to Greenville, where he's expected to
make at least four starts. He wishes, though, he were facing the
Yankees instead of their South Atlantic League club.

"There's a difference being OK with it and understanding it,"
he said. "I understand it, but as a competitor, obviously, I want
to pitch."

And Lester did that brilliantly against the RiverDogs.

The big left-hander was on target, throwing 37 of his 54 pitches
for strikes. Lester hit 96 mph at one point, according to
Charleston's scoreboard, and kept the young Yankees off stride.

Austin Jackson, the second batter Lester faced, swung wildly at
strike three. Lester closed the second inning by striking out Josue
Calzado, then opened the next inning by doing the same to Jose Gil.

Charleston second baseman Wilmer Pino had the hardest shot
against Lester, a liner into right-center that looked it would fall
but Greenville center fielder Jon Eagan made a sliding catch.

Lester struck out five of the 15 batters he faced and gave up
only one walk.

The other RiverDogs hit Lester gave up came on Chris Malec's slow roller to into
the hole between first and second in the fourth inning. Lester,
though, ended things a batter later by striking out Eduardo Nunez.

Lester felt his mechanics were solid and liked the way he threw
his pitches.

"Everything's coming around," Lester said. "It's just a
matter of repetition and getting those innings built up."

Lester's next start is Tuesday.

He last pitched in the South Atlantic League in 2003 with
Augusta (Ga.). He showed his appreciation for his Drive teammates
by treating them to a dinner spread after Friday night's game.
"It's just great being with these guys," he said.

Lester probably felt right at home at Joseph P. Riley Park,
which had a distinct Yankees-Red Sox feel. There was a pregame
visit from Darth Vader, who taunted the Drive about the New York
Yankees stealing their "beloved Johnny Damon."

Former American League president Gene Budig threw out the first
pitch.

Lester's last start against the New York Yankees played a role
in the discovery of his disease. He was rear-ended driving to
Fenway in August. He still pitched, but his back kept hurting and
he thought it was from the accident. Doctors found his cancer and
treatments began.

There were several people with Red Sox caps and shirts among the
record 8,426 fans at Riley Park, cheering on the pitcher they hope
is soon back in the thick of a pennant race.

That's what Lester wants, too.

"Hopefully, I'll get to pitch in Yankee Stadium this year," he
said.