Jon Lester’s final 10 months with the Boston Red Sox were a pretty good indication of what the left-hander is all about.
The duck boats still were wet last November when the predominant conversation swung from Lester’s sparkling playoff run — which, of course, culminated with his second World Series title — to his future with the club beyond 2014. Lester handled the seismic shift with professionalism, poise and an enviable level of confidence, all of which were hallmarks of the pitcher’s 12-year tenure with the Red Sox organization.
In many ways, Lester represents the gold standard when it comes to homegrown talent. He quickly navigated through the Red Sox’s farm system after being drafted in the second round in 2002, eventually breaking into the majors in 2006. He since has blossomed into a rotation stalwart with a track record of being a winner, above all else.
It hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows, though, and it’s the tumultuous moments in Lester’s career — and life — that truly have defined his Red Sox legacy.
Lester’s first big league hurdle wasn’t a mechanical issue, a sudden sense of paranoia or even a case of the dreaded yips. It was cancer. And Lester whopped the disease’s ass to the point where he returned to the mound less than a year later and then won the clinching game of the 2007 World Series as a 23-year-old.
“I think it helped shape me,” Lester told WEEI.com during spring training of his battle with cancer. “It helped make me appreciate things a little bit more. Obviously, when you go through something like that and have something taken away, it makes you appreciate things.
“They were worried (about whether) I would be able to have kids. I think it helps shape you as a man, as a person and just kind as a whole.”
With a successful bout against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the rear-view mirror, Lester hit the ground running in 2008, even tossing a no-hitter. He never looked back, solidifying himself as a consistent, stabilizing force on a Red Sox pitching staff co-piloted by Josh Beckett. It wasn’t until September 2011 — when Lester posted a 5.40 ERA in six starts down the stretch and the Red Sox suffered one of the worst collapses in Major League Baseball history — that baseball’s own version of adversity was thrown the pitcher’s way.
Lester went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 33 starts in 2012. Mechanical issues and a questionable clubhouse environment — some might even call it “toxic” — created a disastrous setting in which it was difficult for anyone to survive, much less thrive. Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto were shipped to the Los Angeles Dodgers that August in what the Red Sox considered an opportunity to hit the “reset” button. Lester stayed put despite the influx of new faces.
While some considered Lester to be part of the problem, the veteran hurler remained hell-bent on becoming part of the solution. And sure enough, just as he beat the crap out of cancer roughly six years earlier, he fought tooth and nail to overcome the latest hurdle slipped in front of him.
Lester capped an impressive 2013 with a postseason for the ages, boasting a 4-1 record and 1.56 ERA in five playoff starts. He twice outdueled St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright in the Fall Classic.
Lester could have walked off the mound following his gem in Game 5 of last year’s World Series, hopped in his truck and drove home to Tacoma, Wash., with an ego the size of Texas. He did his job, proving in the process that he’s absolute nails when the lights shine brightest.
But Lester, who expressed a willingness over the offseason to accept a hometown discount to stay in Boston, arrived to Fort Myers in February for Red Sox spring training with a refreshing outlook on his contract situation: Go out, pitch, handle your business and everything else will take care of itself.
It was the perfect mindset to have in a demanding market like Boston. And Lester made good on his word, thrusting himself into the American League Cy Young conversation while also standing up and answering questions whenever necessary, mainly so that his teammates wouldn’t feel obligated to answer for him. In a sense, it was Lester being Lester.
Lester’s trade to the Oakland Athletics might not officially close the book on his Red Sox career. The 30-year-old said over the weekend he’d consider re-signing with Boston over the offseason even if the Red Sox traded him before Thursday’s Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline. Perhaps an offseason reunion will be in the cards.
But if Lester never pitches another game in a Red Sox uniform, he’ll leave behind a legacy built on perseverance, hard work and simply taking care of business, regardless of what obstacles cropped up.
Lester began carving out a place in Red Sox history many moons ago. He never stopped, even as his departure became inevitable.
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