BOSTON — Jon Lester had become used to the big stage. He won the Red Sox’ World Series-clinching game in 2007, and then pitched in the postseason again in 2008 and 2009. The accepted norm wasn’t if the Red Sox would make the playoffs, but rather how far they’d advance once they punched their ticket to the dance.
Lester learned a harsh reality over the next three seasons, though, as the Red Sox packed their bags and went home immediately following the conclusion of the regular season. It was something that didn’t sit well with Lester, even if the club’s failures have made this season that much sweeter.
“Well, I think every year was a little different,” Lester said of missing the postseason three years in a row. “[In] 2010 we got beat up so much just with injuries and just kind of bad luck with a lot of things that was kind of — I don’t know, to be expected or what. But we played good baseball. Obviously, 2011 speaks for itself. That one left a lot of bitter taste in guys’ mouth. And obviously, last year was just horrendous all the way around.”
The Red Sox’ 2012 season — while, yes, horrendous all the way around — was especially bad for Lester, who performed well below his expectations and the expectations that others had set for him following a very consistent four-year stint. Lester, who had averaged a 3.34 ERA or more than 16 wins per season from 2008-2011, went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA while the Red Sox finished 69-93.
“I know for myself I went home — usually I watch the playoffs if I’m at home or wherever I’m at — and didn’t watch a game, turned it off, tried to kind of get my brain back on track,” Lester said of 2012. “And to now be back to where we’re at, not only be back, but to have the season that we did was obviously very gratifying for all of us in that clubhouse.”
This year has certainly been different. The Red Sox finished the regular season tied for the best record in the majors with the Cardinals, and as a result, Boston secured the American League’s top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Lester is largely responsible for the Red Sox’ worst-to-first turnaround — the first such turnaround in franchise history — and he hopes to be responsible for much more in the coming weeks.
“I can’t sit here and go back to the season and reflect on the season yet. It’s not over,” Lester said Thursday. “I feel like we’ve still got a lot of work to go. When we’re packing our bags and heading home, I’ll take those couple of weeks or week or whatever it is to reflect on it. … But right now, I’m focused on [Friday’s start] and the task at hand. And like I said, we’ll reflect on the season when it’s all said and done.”
While Lester is no stranger to playoff baseball, Friday’s start against the Rays will be his first Game 1 start at Fenway Park in eight seasons with the Red Sox. It’s something that he’s extremely fired up about.
“Yeah, so this will be my first at home, Game 1, so that will be exciting, be obviously electric [Friday],” Lester said. “There’s nothing like playoff atmosphere. You can’t duplicate it. You can’t describe it. It’s just a different beast when you step out on that mound. You know the other team is more focused. They’re ready to go. You know you have to step up your game a little bit and be more focused than the other guy. There’s really nothing like it.”
Emotions tend to run high during October hardball, and the Rays have been red-hot of late, winning 10 of their last 12 games, including back-to-back elimination games on Monday and Wednesday. But Lester has pitched in big spots before, and he seems to understand the importance of harnessing the extra adrenaline and using it to his advantage.
“And like I would say, I can go out and bust my butt and give the team the best chance to win [Friday] and set the tone for the other starters,” Lester said.
It’s been a while. But Lester is out to prove that pitching in the playoffs is like riding a bike.