Teams often classify getting key players back from injury at or around the trade deadline as being their big acquisitions. They don't cost prospects. They don't require paying off the remainder of someone's contract. They are more of a known commodity.
It would not be a stretch to put Jon Lester in that category, for he returned from injury less than a week before Sunday's deadline. And on Saturday in Chicago, as trade activity and speculation increased greatly around the majors, Lester returned to form.
Looking like the pitcher everyone was watching prior to his strained left lat, Lester dominated the Chicago White Sox, allowing two solo homers and virtually nothing else in eight innings of a 10-2 win.
"He came back the other day, first time back, and we thought he was good," manager Terry Francona said of Lester's initial outing off the disabled list Monday at Fenway Park. "Then he came back and five days later he was really good. It was just like vintage Lester. That's really exciting for us."
With the effort, Lester is now 4-2 with a 2.06 ERA over a span of eight starts bridging his time on the DL. The Red Sox tried to make measures to atone for the potential long-term loss of Clay Buchholz by nearly acquiring Rich Harden late Saturday, and they may make a bid for a starter Sunday, but having Lester rediscover the form he had prior to the injury may be as important as anything that happens this weekend.
Remember, it was Lester who took the ball on Opening Day, the nominal ace of what was considered a top-notch rotation. It was Lester who was 6-0 with a 1.76 ERA in a dominant stretch of August and September last year, cementing himself as a viable Cy Young Award candidate before a stinker in his final outing of the season.
Yet, it was Lester who has become a bit of an afterthought in the current state of the rotation.
Much of the talk has surrounded Josh Beckett's phenomenal campaign, Buchholz's back, John Lackey's roller-coaster ride and whatever the team was going to do to fill in the back end of the rotation. Lester, meanwhile, put forth a very quiet, yet very good run before getting hurt, and then had no drama in his return, making systematic progress in his recovery.
If Saturday night is any indication, the attention might soon shift more toward Lester, the way it did around this time last year when he snapped a personal four-game losing streak with a scoreless outing in New York.
If stuff is any indication, Lester's right where he needs to be to have that kind of a stretch run.
"He was just hitting his spots," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "Locating the fastball was the biggest thing, getting ahead of guys, just looked great. Everything we threw had some conviction, had sharp. He just looked good tonight."
The White Sox went down in order in the first, third, fifth and sixth innings. A solo homer by Paul Konerko in the seventh and another by Gordon Beckham in the eighth muddied the final line, but took nothing away from Lester's effort.
The lefty allowed only four hits overall and struck out eight. Walks, an issue for him at times in 2010 and early in 2011, were limited to one. He has issued two free passes or less in five consecutive starts, his longest such span since June 2009.
"It's always about executing," he told reporters. "I was able to keep the fastball down. When you're able to do that, good things happen. … Sometimes it sounds easy, sometimes it's really hard to do."
When he's going well, Lester always makes it look easy. After Saturday, he appears to be going well. Given the team's search for starting pitching, the timing is rather apt.