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. Lester's memorable return was covered on Wednesday.
Usually, when someone poses the question "What do you do for an encore?" there is no need for an answer.
It is a rhetorical question, and it's implied that what was already done cannot be topped.
Such an inquiry could've been posed to Jon Lester after he scripted a historic tale of triumph in 2007, returning from cancer treatments to go 4-0 and win the decisive game of the World Series. Where can you go from there?
Those who knew Lester before he was stricken with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma knew a guy who took each step of his career with purpose. This was not a rest-on-your-laurels kind of guy.
Even so, when Lester did take that next step, he amazed us all once again. In fact, he made history.
"It's hard to describe," Lester said after throwing the 18th no-hitter in Red Sox history on May 19, 2008, his 11th start of a breakout season. "I think [the World Series-clinching win and the no-hitter are] both definitely up there. I can't tell you which one means more to me than the other. The World Series is obviously the World Series. How many people get to say they won that? A no-hitter is a no-hitter. How many people can say they’ve done that?
"They're both up there. They both mean a heck of a lot to me. It’s something I'll cherish for a long time."
In comparing his personal achievements, Lester managed to leave out conquering cancer. That wasn't necessarily on purpose — he was only answering a question — but it speaks to what he was all about that spring.
Not that his treatment, recovery and return to the game was unimportant to him and to everyone who witnessed it, but Lester was finally ready to focus primarily on baseball.
"It was finally, 'I'm a pitcher again,'" Lester said when looking back on 2008. "Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. It was my cancer-free year, all the way around."
When he pumped in a mid-90s fastball on his 130th pitch on that glorious night at Fenway Park, Lester was a pitcher once again, and one well on his way to becoming one of the best in the game.
Sixteen wins, a 3.21 ERA and three more quality starts in the postseason capped the 2008 campaign. In March, a year after he was just hoping to get in a first full season at the major league level, Lester was given a $30 million contract extension. He more than earned his keep in 2009, going 15-8 and finishing third in the American League with 225 strikeouts.
Now, with big things in his rearview mirror, he could focus on the "little" things, like continuing to bulk up, mixing in his improving changeup and potent cutter, and starting a family.
Figures from Lester's past had seen the story unfold, the highs and the lows. Knowing the character of the lefty, they never considered that the southpaw would not make it big.
"Sometimes you kind of go, 'Wow, that’s unbelievable,' but does it surprise me? No," said Rick Barnhart, Lester's coach at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash. "He always is amazing but I don't know that it surprises me. … The biggest thing is, he’s an amazing guy, an incredibly good person and it's nice as a coach to see that rewarded because so many of today's athletes are not always that way."
Undoubtedly, too many other athletes do rest on their laurels. That's not Jon Lester's style, and he would continue to prove it again by taking another step forward in 2010.
Check back Friday for a look at Lester’s 2010 season and where he will go from there.
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