Red Sox manager John Farrell surprised no one on Wednesday when he announced that Jon Lester will be the team’s Opening Day starter. But the honor bestowed upon the lefty is a microcosm of Lester’s importance.
The Red Sox made a bevy of offseason moves, aimed at both retooling the roster and reshaping the team’s image. The players brought in come not only with skill sets that should mesh on the field, but also with positive attitudes that should create a more productive clubhouse atmosphere. Through all of the additions and changes of the past six months, though, one overriding fact remains: the Red Sox need to pitch better in 2013.
The man most important to that effort is Lester.
The Red Sox’ last two seasons have been tumultuous, to say the least, and Lester has received — deservedly so — as much criticism as anyone. Once one of the most reliable left-handers in the game, Lester collapsed alongside his teammates in 2011, and then struggled mightily throughout all of 2012. He went 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA during the thick of 2011′s playoff race, and went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA while pitching for Bobby Valentine‘s much-scrutinized 2012 team.
There’s a different feeling surrounding this year’s outlook, though. Lester arrived in camp saying the right things, but he also seems to understand that words can only go so far, especially when an organization that demands success hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008. Now, he’s ready to enter the season looking like the pitcher who was once considered by many to be the team’s ace.
Lester tossed four scoreless innings in his final tune-up on Wednesday, and he closes the book on his spring with a 0.75 ERA and 0.50 WHIP. Lester allowed just two earned runs over 24 innings in his six Grapefruit League starts, and opposing batters hit just .101 against the lefty.
Obviously, it’s still spring training. If Lester flops this season, no one is going to remember the six perfect innings he threw against the Rays on St. Patrick’s Day or the fantastic strikeout-to-walk ratio he posted in six starts. The 29-year-old has been around for plenty of ups and downs, though, so he understands this, and he seems to be in a good place with the April 1 season opener looming.
“I think in spring, you could look at it both ways,” Lester told reporters on Wednesday. “You can look at is as, OK, I’m hitting my stride at the right time. I’m finally clicking and things are going good. Like I’ve said after each one, it’s good to have good results. It reinforces all the work you put into it and the adjustments and you see the swings at certain pitches and it’s like, ‘Man, this is me.’ With that being said, there’s still going to be times where you get waffled. That’s just part of being a pitcher. I think those times will be few and far between.”
For the Red Sox’ sake, Lester’s bad outings need to be few and far between, or else Boston will find itself in a situation similar to last year’s. Each of the team’s five starters is capable of turning in a solid performance on any given night, and the team will need consistency from top to bottom, but Lester is the guy. How Lester fares this season has the potential to dictate the overall effectiveness of the staff. If he can rebound to become a stopper every fifth day — like he once was — everything else has the potential to fall into place.
The Red Sox’ offense is a bit banged up, and David Ortiz‘s injury will undoubtedly impact the unit right out of the gate. That makes it even more essential for the Lester-led rotation to hit the ground running.
“All the words — honor, privilege — all of that, especially for this organization, to be named that,” Lester said of being named Boston’s Opening Day starter for the third straight year. “I take it with great pride, and I’ll go out there and give it a good start and hopefully get this team off to a good start this season.”
If Lester truly is back to his old self, a good start will only be a precursor to an even better finish.