Jon Lester Impressive in Spring Debut, Must Keep Working Toward Returning to Ace Status for Red Sox

Jon LesterIt’s only spring training.

Those words are muttered countless times year in and year out as some players thrive in camp while others fizzle out. The reason? It’s actually quite true.

Spring training means a variety of things for a variety of players. For minor leaguers invited to major league camp, it’s a chance to lay the groundwork for a big league call-up. For veterans, it’s a chance to get back into the swing of things. And for those battling injuries, it’s a chance to get healthy before tackling the grind of a 162-game slate.

Lester lands mostly in the “veterans” category, but despite his impressive track record, this spring holds a little bit more importance in the wake of 2012’s disaster. Rather than simply “getting back into the swing of things,” the left-hander is working on reverting back to what made him a bona fide ace from 2008 to 2011.

“The simplest way to describe it is my hand is on top of the ball rather than the wrist being underneath the ball and pushing the ball,” Lester told reporters when describing the mechanics he’s trying to get back to. “And that was something we fell into last year with a whole bunch of things we don’t have time to get into that created that pushing of the ball.”

Technicalities aside, Lester is, in essence, working toward changing what clearly didn’t work in 2012. That’s why when the results are similar to Sunday’s, it’s especially encouraging. A great season often starts with great preparation, so while we shouldn’t get too crazy about Lester’s two perfect innings against the Cardinals on Sunday, it’s OK to feel good about where the lefty is at in terms of getting ready for a bounce-back year.

Lester didn’t allow a run, hit or walk in the Red Sox’ 5-3 win, and he struck out Carlos Beltran to end the first of his two innings. Lester threw all fastballs and one changeup — something he said was designed to get his feet under him — but we did see some positives, such as his pitch location when jamming Rafael Furcal to induce an easy popup.

The most encouraging sign of Lester’s spring thus far, though, is his passion to get back to elite status. Lester looks to have a fire inside of him going into this season, and that’s exactly what the Red Sox need if they’re really going to put 2012 in the rear-view mirror.

Lester and everyone else down at Red Sox camp can say all the right things, but until the season kicks off on April 1, we don’t know if the confidence is all smoke and mirrors or if this team really does have a legitimate shot at contending. One thing that can be said with a great deal of certainty, however, is that Lester needs to be an ace.

There are undoubtedly other talented arms on the staff. Clay Buchholz has fantastic stuff, Ryan Dempster has an impressive resume and there’s even a chance John Lackey could silence a few skeptics this season by being halfway decent every fifth day. When it comes to Lester, though, the expectation of greatness is still there. It’s rare that talent just disappears overnight, and at only 29, it’s safe to say Lester is more than capable of bouncing back, no matter how horrifying 2012 was for Red Sox fans.

It’s just spring training, yes. But you need to crawl before you can walk. And Lester needs to walk before the Red Sox can run.

Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here.

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