Editor's note: Each day this week, Tony Lee will offer an inside scoop on Jon Lester's rise from a small town in the Great Northwest to heroic ace of the Boston Red Sox. On Thursday, Lester's unbelievable no-hitter was captured.
One of the rites of spring is each manager in baseball declaring his Opening Day starter. Often it's a foregone conclusion. Every once in awhile, there is a bit of drama.
Red Sox skipper Terry Francona was asked a handful of times who would throw the first pitch for him last spring, although almost everyone assumed it would be Josh Beckett. It was simply a matter of Beckett working through an illness last March and proving he was good to go, at which point Francona finally put an end to the wait.
Somewhere, quietly, Jon Lester went about his business. In time, he would prove who No. 1 was.
Sure, Beckett's back injury had a lot to do with it, but Lester's campaign was so spectacular that keeping the ace label away from him was hard to do.
Of course, it didn't start out that way. It rarely does with the lefty, who has a tendency to get his bad starts out of the way early on. He was 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA after three outings (Beckett was 1-0 with a 3.86 mark at the same time).
Even amid that slump, Lester offered up a prime example of what it means to be a leader, and why he was the rock in the rotation. It came after getting knocked around by Tampa Bay on April 18.
"I don't know what I have to do, I just have to be better," he said, beginning a rather pointed response from a pretty even-keeled guy. "It's unacceptable. I'm letting the rotation down. I'm letting the bullpen down. I have to go deeper into that game. … Most importantly, I'm letting the team down with how I'm throwing right now. I need to pick it up and kick myself in the ass."
That rare show of emotion not only exemplified Lester's competitive spirit, but it was also the kick start to his best stretch as a major leaguer, the type of run that will make decisions surrounding Opening Day starters a mere formality as long as Lester is around.
Over his next 15 starts, Lester went 11-1 with a 1.92 ERA, lasting at least six innings in all but one start and throwing the fifth and sixth complete games of his career.
A career-high 13 strikeouts came just after the hot streak ended, and later in the season, with his team fighting tooth and nail to just have an outside chance in the playoff chase, he won six straight starts and became the first Red Sox lefty in 90 years to have four straight starts with at least 10 strikeouts.
The penultimate start of Lester's season may have been his best. Facing the New York Yankees in the Bronx, he took a no-hitter into the sixth and put up goose eggs for seven innings before leaving on the right side of a 6-0 score. The outing kept Boston's playoff hopes on a string and had Lester surrounded with Cy Young Award talk. His manager showed his support.
"He's built for the long haul and he's maturing into one of the better pitchers in the league," Francona said.
Lester, who also made the second start of the season in 2008 and 2009, will soon hear his name called for Opening Day. Never one to have an issue with priorities, he has his sights set only on closing time.
"Mentally and physically, I'm preparing for the World Series,'' he recently told The Boston Globe. "I'm doing extra right now to make sure my body holds up for late October. You look at the kind of team we have and I don't see why can't get there."